The Dear Leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Kim Jong-il, has passed away. His seventeen-year “enlightened” rule will be commemorated in a grand state funeral scheduled next week. The government has now called on the North Korean people to “loyally follow” the Young Leader at the Forefront of the Revolution, Kim Jong-un, as he leads the country towards the 2012 Year of Prosperity.
Except that he won’t really lead the country to prosperity, of course. And this is not only because, as anyone can point out, it’s impossible for the seclusive and impoverished pariah state that is the Democratic People’s Republic to attain prosperity in the immediate future; it’s also because the Young Leader would not lead North Korea at all. Or at least not yet. The man to watch is not really Kim Jong-un but his uncle, Chang Song-Taek.
It is true that the twenty-six year-old Kim Jong-un has been groomed to take the place of his father and to continue the perpetuation of the Kim dynasty, but it remains to be seen if he actually has what it takes to solidify his rule. Surviving in the reclusive political system in Pyongyang– a system that rewards only those who are shrewd, ambitious and ruthless– is not a walk in the park.
Kim Jong-il was a heartless and ambitious man who had been groomed to succeed his father, the Eternal President Kim Il-sung, since his childhood; while Kim Jong-un, the third son of the Dear Leader, was chosen by his father practically at the last two minutes of his rule and only because the father had no choice– the first son was deemed too effeminate and the second, the one caught trying to visit Tokyo Disneyland on a fake passport, rather eccentric. Kim Jong-il had ten years of running the day-to-day business of his father’s regime before he assumed power in 1994. Kim Jong-un, on the other hand, was made a general only in 2009, after his father suffered a stroke. Kim Jong-il had always been the epitome of ruthlessness, the Western-educated Kim Jong-un not very much. And the thing is, even the highly-prepared Kim Jong-il needed three years to consolidate his rule after assuming power– he had to face two attempted coups.
Whether or not the Young Leader would survive depends heavily on the Kim family’s ability to firmly inspire loyalty and fear among the ruling elite, and doing this is something few observers would say the Young Leader is capable of. I suspect, then, that this task now falls on the shoulder of Chang Song-Taek, the shadowy and powerful husband of Kim Jong-il’s favorite sister. Chang has a considerable power base he has consolidated through the years. He had been considered a threat by Kim Jong-il, who had him put on house arrest in 2003, only to be released through the intercession of the Dear Leader’s sister. Since then he had been unstoppable, and by last year he has been able to take the Young Leader under his wing. An analyst for Korea Institute of Defense calls him ” the bridge from Kim Jong-il to Kim Jong-un.” In effect, he has been acting, and would continue to act I bet, as a regent of sorts for the Young Leader.
Very little is known about Chang, but for him to be able to rise to the position he is in now, I suspect he has the ambition, shrewdness and ruthlessness required by the North Korean political system. The question is whether he intends to continue perpetuating the Kim dynasty or create a dynasty of his own. The only certain thing is that, in order for him to maintain power, he would have to keep the ruling elite in check. And in North Korea, the best way to do that is to do something, well, spectacular.
Seoul knows this, which is why it has placed its forces on red alert. Tokyo, Beijing, Kremlin, Washington and other concerned capitals know this very well too. North Korea is indeed in for some interesting times.