North Korea’s communist regime is, by most accounts, set to complete its second dynastic transfer of power, this time from Kim Jong-il, who has ruled since 1994, to his youngest son, Kim Jong-eun. The general assembly of North Korea’s Workers’ Party, now underway for the first time in 44 years, is the clearest sign yet that “Dear Leader” Kim, who is seriously ill, is passing the crown in the hermit kingdom founded by his father, Kim Il-sung.
One reason why a dynastic succession is taking place is that Kim Il-sung created a national ideology, Juche, which mixes communism and autarchy with a heavy dose of Confucian values. Confucianism exalts an idealized bond between father and son as the model for all human relations, including between ruler and ruled. So, just as a Confucian son’s absolute duty is to revere his father, the absolute duty of a Confucian subject is to revere the ruler.
Moreover, Kim Jong-il, like his father, has consistently appointed members of his family to positions of power. Kim Jong-eun, third son of Kim Jong-il and his late consort Ko Young-hee, was mooted as his father’s successor almost a year ago.
North Korean propagandists proclaim Kim Jong-eun “the Young General”, but whether he will exercise the same absolutist authority as his father is an open question. Not only is he young and inexperienced, but his aunt, Kim Kyong-hui, Kim Jong-il’s sister and the wife of the second-ranking figure in North Korea’s hierarchy, Chang Song-taek, may balk at power slipping through her fingers.
Though rarely seen or heard, Kim Kyong-hui, born on 30 May 1946 to Kim Il-sung and his first wife Kim Jong-suk, has served in a range of key Workers’ Party positions, including deputy director of the international department and director of the light industry department. She became a member of the all-powerful Central Committee in 1988—a post she retains to this day.
Kim Kyong-hui’s mother died when she was 4. After her father, Kim Il-sung, remarried, she was raised by various surrogates away from the family. Observing the relationship between her father and stepmother, and their affection toward her half brothers, she is said to have become embittered and developed a fierce personality. Indeed, Kim Jong-il is quoted as saying: “When my sister turns violent, no one can stop her. Even I can do nothing.”
When Kim Jong-il started living with his second wife, Kim Kyong-hui sought to incite trouble, driven by a sense of rivalry. After marrying Chang Song-taek, she lived something of a hedonistic life herself, but scrutinized her husband’s conduct minutely, flying into a jealous rage over the slightest signs of infidelity.
Kim Jong-il has described his sister as “my only blood family whom I was asked to take care of by my mother till the moment she died”. Their mother, Kim Jong-suk, is said to have died from haemorrhaging while giving premature birth caused by her distress over Kim Il-sung’s love affair with Kim Song-ae. Kim Il-sung reportedly rushed to the hospital, but the door to Kim Jong-suk’s room was locked. When she died, her doctor and Kim Jong-il were the only people present.
But Chan Giryok, who was Kim Jong-suk’s primary doctor and is now a doctor at Nagoya University in Japan, tells a different story. According to Chan, Kim Jong-suk was at Kim Il-sung’s Pyongyang home, quarrelling with him. Watching from afar, the doctor saw Kim Il-sung holding a pistol. The doctor, who was a surgeon, not an obstetrician, questioned the wisdom of summoning him to treat excessive bleeding from a premature delivery. He believes that he was summoned to treat bleeding caused by something else.
Kim Jong-il, known to have had a powerful attachment to his mother, cannot help but have been psychologically affected by witnessing her killing. From the moment of his mother’s death, he kept his young sister close to him at all times.
Indeed, in a country where trust rarely exists, Kim Kyong-hui is the only blood relation whom Kim Jong-il has ever fully trusted. Moreover, the two share the same lineage of the Great Leader, or Suryong, linked to Kim Jong-suk on the maternal side, and are fully devoted to the absolute supremacy of the Suryong and hereditary succession.
Speaking before the Central Committee after Kim Il-sung’s death, Kim Jong-il said, “Kim Kyong-hui is myself, the words of Kim Kyong-hui are my words, and instructions issued by Kim Kyong-hui are my instructions.”
Kim Kyong-hui’s intent to exercise power after her brother’s passing is supported by rumours that she helped arrange a traffic accident in June that killed Ri Je-gang, a senior party official and perceived guardian of Kim Jong-eun who reportedly attempted to oust Kim Kyong-hui and her close allies from power. Whether true or not, such rumours indicate the magnitude of her influence.
There is, indeed, a growing belief that Kim Jong-il might, at any moment, designate Kim Kyong-hui to serve as a caretaker for the third-generation successor after his death. But Kim Kyong-hui may have other plans, such as becoming Kim Jong-il’s successor herself.
The threat from North Korea has always been that it might start another war, whether by miscalculation or design. But, even if the “Young General” or his aunt turn out not to be unhinged megalomaniacs, the looming changeover opens a new era of uncertainty, particularly given North Korea’s economic woes.
Whether Kim Jong-eun or Kim Kyong-hui intend to soldier on in desperate isolation, or to bring in economic change, they lack the revolutionary credentials and grip on power needed to do so. So when Kim Jong-il passes from the scene, and political instability meets economic blight, the regime could fall apart.
South Korean President Lee Myung-bak has wisely begun to prepare for that contingency by proposing a special “Unification Tax” to help pay the costs of the Kim dynasty’s eventual fall. Japan and the rest of Asia should prepare for that day as well.
Yuriko Koike is Japan’s former minister of defence and national security adviser, and is now chairman of the executive council of the Liberal Democratic Party.
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