Struggle for Power: A Theory on Post-Kim Jung-un North Korea
On May 3, Kim Jung-un made his first appearance in close to a month by attending a ceremony at the newly completed fertilizer factory in Sunchon.  During his 20 day absence, the rumor mill surrounding the reclusive leader's health churned. Rumors ranged from Kim recovering after undergoing cardiovascular surgery in North Korea to reports of Kim Jung-un’s death following complications from surgery.  While the outside world may never know what happened during Kim’s 20 day absence, the rumors raise a critical question for analysts: What would a post-Kim Jung-un North Korea look like? Without a clear successor named for Kim Jung-un, there is likely to be a power struggle within the upper echelons of the bureaucracy within North Korea. Since the status-quo, however, is by far the best for the elite within Pyongyang, it is likely the bureaucrats will seek stability and as clean of a leadership transition as possible. After all, South Korean leaders called on the International Criminal Court to prosecute North Korea and its leadership following the assassination of Kim Jung-nam in Malaysia.  While the Moon and Trump administrations have sought a less confrontational relationship with North Korea, both can be replaced with leaders who favor prosecuting North Korean political leaders for their abuses of human rights. Therefore, it is unlikely that North Korean bureaucratic leaders will push for a change in the system, at least right away. This makes a clean transition a necessity. With power likely to remain within the North Korean system, the next leader is bound to come from the upper levels of North Korea’s political leadership and, if possible, from the Kim family bloodline. This makes Kim Yo-jong, Kim Jung-un’s sister, the obvious choice. She is the only member of the heralded Paektu bloodline that is in a position of power and of ruling age.  All other members of the Kim family are either not in position to push for power or are simply uninterested in political power.  Despite being the seemingly obvious successor to Kim Jung-un, there are some points against Kim Yo-jong. First, North Korea is a highly patriarchal society.  A female leader goes against the cultural norms underpinning North Korea’s history and many high-ranking bureaucrats may not support Yo-jong’s candidacy simply because she is a woman. Second, though Yo-jong is a rising star and, recently, made public pronouncements,  her rise within the system slowed this year. At the April extended meeting of the Politburo, she was not promoted to a full member, retaining her position as an alternate member instead.  Because of these factors, a quiet power struggle at high levels within the North Korean political bureaucracy may ensue. In a power struggle scenario, there are two factions which could come into power. First is the military faction led by Choe Ryong-hae. Currently, Choe serves in a variety of bureaucratic positions, including as a Vice Marshal of the Korean People’s Army, a member of the Standing Committee of the Politburo, and a Vice-Chairman of the State Affairs Commission.  Choe made his career through service in political positions within the military and party bureaucratic positions with direct control over the military, including a stint on the Central Military Commission.  Since Kim Jung-un rose to power, Choe has been a member of the young leader's inner circle and ostensibly North Korea’s number two.  It is likely the military will back Choe and his policy, if in power, may favor the military. Choe Ryong-hae’s path to power, however, is also not clear. In May 2014, Choe reportedly lost his position as North Korea’s number two.  Though he regained his position in November 2015, Choe was purged after being blamed for a power plant malfunction in North Korea.  Choe has also been competing with Hwang Pyong-so for the number two position. Hwang, too, came up through the military and serves in the upper echelons of North Korea’s bureaucracy. The two may compete for support from the military, making room for another leader to come into power. Park Pong-ju may also take power if a power struggle erupts. Park currently serves as a Vice Chair of the Supreme People’s Assembly, a member of the Politburo, and a member of the Central Military Commission. Park, unlike Choe and Hwang, has little discernible military experience and rose within the bureaucracy after serving as the head of the Ministry of Chemical Industry in the 1990s.  In Kim’s inner circle, Park is associated with domestic policy, specifically heading the push for economic reform within North Korea. If Park succeeds Kim Jung-un, North Korea may embark on a path of market liberalization similar to that of China under Deng Xiaoping. Park, as with the others, will also face challenges if he pushes for power. First, he does not hold the same power within the system as Choe Ryong-hae or Hwang Pyong-so. Second, Park’s return to power following a dismissal in April 2007 is closely tied with Jang Song-taek, Kim Jung-un’s uncle who was purged in 2010.  Since Kim has worked to eliminate those with close ties to China, including Jang Song-taek, from the bureaucratic institutions, Park likely has few allies within the system. If Park does wish to succeed in a power struggle, he will probably have to form coalitions within the upper levels of the party to make up for this lack. A final complicating factor is the possibility that Kim Jung-un has a son. However, Kim’s son is likely no more than 10 years old and, currently, poses little threat to anyone seeking to make a move.  However, a system may put into place a member of the bureaucracy as a temporary leader until Kim Jung-un’s son comes of age. A myriad of political, economic, and social variables easily complicates the image of a possible post-Kim Jung-un North Korea depicted above. While an internal power struggle between military and reform leaders may break out, a lack of knowledge of North Korea’s power structure under Kim Jung-un and the lack of an officially declared successor make predicting the future of North Korea after Kim Jung-un basically impossible.
Benjamin holds a Master of International Affairs from the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M. His writings on Korea have appeared in various online and print publications, including Charged Affairs, The Peninsula Report, and The Houston Chronicle. This piece is based on original research examining North Korea’s bureaucracy presented at University of Southern California in February 2020 and Texas A&M in April 2020.
***The views expressed herein do not necessarily represent the opinions of NKR or Yonsei Institute for North Korean Studies.
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