reasoned thought for an age of uncertainty
Kim Jong-un’s rise to power in North Korea reveals much about the country’s inner power circle and its exultation of the military. With his father Kim Jong-il dead and a constitution that emphasizes the military above all else, Kim Jong-un’s position serves as little more than a figurehead to mask the machinations of those with true power in North Korea: it’s military leaders.
Perhaps the most surprising fact about Kim Jong-un’s rise to power is that he is the youngest of former leader Kim Jong-il’s three children. How is it that Kim Jong-un has replaced his father as head of state when he has two older brothers that could readily have taken his place? The answer most likely lies in the character traits that are required to be the figurehead of a state–discipline, authoritarianism and an outsized personality under which other leaders can hide their machinations.
Both of Kim Jong-un’s older brothers appear to have been lacking in these qualities. The eldest, Kim Jong-nam, was the offspring of Kim Jong-il’s illicit relationship with an actress and grew up in a pampered yet secluded childhood. Jong-nam has lived a lavish lifestyle in Macau for years, and in 2001 he caused great embarrassment to the former North Korean leader when he was arrested while trying to enter Japan on a falsified passport in order to visit Tokyo Disneyland. That misstep likely ended any slight chance Jong-nam had in ascending to his father’s throne. The second eldest son, Kim Jong-chul, was reportedly disfavored by his father because, according to a former chef of the Kim household, he was ”no good because he is like a little girl.” Without the requisite authoritarian attitude, the figurehead could provide little cover for the North Korean military which had assumed primary importance under North Korea’s revised constitution, replacing the importance formerly held by communism.
When Kim Jong-il fell ill during the late 2000s, the next most powerful man in North Korea would have been the first vice chairman of the Military Defense Council. In 2007 this post was held by Cho Myong-nok. The only information that I could find on the former Vice Chairman was that he acted as North Korean envoy during the brief detente with the United States under the Clinton administration, meeting with President Clinton in October of 2000. Apparently Cho Myong-nok died in 2010. His position appears to have been assumed in 2010 by Kim Jong-un. In addition, in 2010 North Korea recalled its long-standing ambassador to Switzerland, Yi Chol, who is believed to have been responsible for managing Kim Jong-il’s offshore bank accounts and would have intimate knowledge of Kim Jong-un and his brother Kim Jong-chul, both of whom attended school in Bern, Switzerland.
The power formerly held by Cho Myong-nok and Kim Jong-il appears to have been filled by close confidants of Kim Jong-il. Today, the two most powerful men in North Korea after Kim Jong-un appear to be general O Kuk-ryol, the childhood friend of former leader Kim Jong-il, and politican Jang Sung-taek, Kim Jong-il’s brother-in-law. Together these men lead the military of North Korea and form the power base on which Kim Jong-un’s figurehead is mast. Despite their power, both men appear to have been central figures in leadership purges prior to Kim Jong-un’s rise to power. In fact, one of Sung-taek’s proteges is reported to have jumped to his death during an interrogation by the North Korean state security police. Other top military leaders have likewise been purged by Jong-un in favor of others who were closer and more loyal to him (or those pulling the strings behind him).
Among the many odd turns in this power struggle, Kim Jong-un also appears to have targeted his eldest brother, Kim Jong-nam, with an assassin attempt in 2010. Kim Jong-nam had been critical of the transfer of power to his half-brother (whom he purportedly has never met) in a book released through a Japanese journalist. In the book, Jong-nam poignantly notes, “It is questionable how a hereditary successor who has been through (successor) training for only about two years can take over the absolute authority that has continued for 37 years. What will likely happen is that existing groups that hold power will succeed my father, while keeping the young successor as a symbol.”
Given Jong-un’s meteoric rise amidst vastly more experienced and powerful men, this does in fact seem to be what has transpired in North Korea. With Kim Jong-il’s death and the revision of the North Korean constitution in 2009, the state seems to have no other purpose than to serve its military, which is headed by O Kuk-ryol and Jan Sung-taek. While Kim Jong-un is exulted as a supreme leader by the North Korean government, he appears to have been chosen merely to present some semblance of continuity with North Korea’s past. The totalitarian military state has found its masthead.