Russian journalist Natalia Portyakova from Izvestia emailed this week to ask my thoughts about rumoured succession plans in North Korea. An extended version of my response:
Kang Pan Sok, Kim Jong Suk, & Kim Yo Jong: Echoes of the Past & Rumblings from the Future?
This week Daily NK reported that Kim Jong Un has received heart surgery. Since then, rumours have swirled of Kim’s sudden or imminent demise. It has been suggested that his sister Kim Yo Jong is being groomed as a successor, should the Supreme Leader perish, or should this morbidly obese, gout-ridden youth’s health render him incapable of ruling North Korea. This would be an extraordinary twist in the history of the DPRK, which has already witnessed two transitions of power within one ruling family since 1948.
On the one hand, the idea of a female leader in North Korea is not beyond imagination. Indeed, other Kim Family women have long been elevated to high status in North Korea’s revolutionary mythology, most notably Kang Pan Sok — mother of Kim Il Sung — and Kim Jong Suk, wife of Kim Il Sung and mother of Kim Jong Il.
Kang Pan Sok was a venerated Communist activist in the Japanese colonial era and Kim Jong Suk is hailed as the mother of the nation. It is also worth recalling that even the male Kims were and remain strongly associated with feminine and maternal imagery and language in North Korea’s revolutionary mythology, as Brian Myers so well explains in The Cleanest Race.
Nevertheless, it remains unclear whether in practice North Korea’s patriarchal military and Party hierarchy would accept the accession of Kim Yo Jong to the position of Supreme Leader. Kim Yo Jong’s role in recent years has been largely symbolic, depicted as her brother’s shadow in North Korea and his diplomatic avatar during the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in South Korea. Power remains firmly invested in the OGD. Kim Yo Jong does not have the same institutional support that Kim Jong Un inherited from his father (including many key grandees who were subsquently purged), nor has her accession been foreshadowed in propaganda the way Kim Jong Un’s rise was foreshadowed for years before his father’s death. That said, Kim Yo Jong has received official appointments as an alternate member of the Politburo and has followed in her father’s footsteps as a leading figure in the Propaganda and Agitation Department of the Workers’ Party. Kim Jong Il’s formative years were also spent in the PAD.
With no obvious heir to Kim Jong Un — his own children too young to rule in their own right — Kim Yo Jong’s accession would seem an act of desperation by those in Pyongyang determined to maintain Kim Family rule. In the event of Kim Yo Jong’s accession, we can expect opposition from elements of the Party and military, perhaps the court of public opinion too. Pyongyang would invariably enter a new cycle of purges as factions manoeuvre in the aftermath of succession. The survival of a Kim Yo Jong regime, perhaps the survival of North Korea as we know it, will depend on her ability to navigate this transition. The OGD — upholding Kim Family rule — outfoxed Jang Song Thaek, yet for a while it seemed the single-hearted unity in Pyongyang was cracking.
For all his youth, Kim Jong Un succeeded beyond the expectations of many that North Korea would collapse after Kim Jong Il’s death in 2011. Perhaps a Kim Yo Jong regime might defy the odds again. Yet dynastic transition in the era of coronavirus will prove challenging. The mass gatherings and propaganda events that are traditionally employed to consolidate Kim Family power are difficult to hold without spreading Covid-19 and the North Korean economy is contracting as cross-border trade with China shrinks.
Regime destabilisation, even collapse, would prove even more dangerous in a pandemic. A collapsing WMD-armed plague state wedged between China and the Republic of Korea is a nightmare scenario for the region. On the other hand, this very threat may galvanise the PRC and ROK to work together to rapidly stabilise the situation in North Korea should a crisis eventuate. Whether the USA has an appetite for intervention, even in a humanitarian capacity, is uncertain under Trump.
One thing is clear: even if he makes a good recovery from heart surgery, Kim Jong Un is unwell for a young man of his age. Whether now or in years to come, the demise of Kim Jong Un should be seen as an opportunity for power to return to the Korean people. The election of Thae Yong-ho in the South Korean National Assembly has sent a strong message to Pyongyang’s political elite: North Koreans can choose a different future and thrive.