Added by Erik West on December 20, 2011
North Korea’s dynasties battle for power
By David Blair in London
A dynastic power struggle has begun in North Korea where experts have identified three rival factions jockeying for position behind Kim Jong-un, the country’s new leader.
The regime placed the body of Kim Jong-il, the dictator who died on Saturday, on display in a glass coffin in the capital, Pyongyang, yesterday. His son and successor was among the first to pay his respects and observe a moment of silence.
The official media have begun fashioning a personality cult around Mr Kim, who became a general last year despite lacking any military experience. The young man – officially 29 but probably only 27 – has been officially labelled the “great successor” and a “lighthouse of hope”.
Yet his inexperience has opened the way for more practised operators. “For someone who was meant to be all-powerful, this was hardly the kind of succession that Kim Jong-il would have wanted,” said Kerry Brown, head of the Asia programme at Chatham House, the foreign affairs think tank in London.
Despite “intricate calculations”, there was only a “very rickety consensus” behind the succession of the late dictator’s third and youngest son, added Mr Brown. “This choice was a big, big compromise,” he said.
Three factions may now be taking shape behind the new leader. Perhaps the most significant is led by Chang Sung-taek, a pillar of the regime who serves as vice-chairman of the National Defence Commission. His wife, Kim Kyong-hui, is the younger sister of the late leader.
Mr Kim may well rely on the guidance of this powerful couple, his aunt and uncle-by-marriage, both more than 30 years his senior. Their influence became clear last week when they were photographed with the late dictator on a visit to a state supermarket in Pyongyang that turned out to be his final engagement.
Mr Brown said there was a “consensus” that Mr Chang could emerge as a regent figure, exercising significant power at least during the new leader’s early period in office. Mr Chang, 65, benefits from a significant power base on the defence commission, which amounts to North Korea’s supreme decision-making body. He is judged to be a pragmatist rather than an ideologue, sympathetic to modest economic reform, in line with proposals made by China. Earlier in his career, Mr Chang was purged from the Central Committee and consigned to the political wilderness, where he remained for three years until returning in 2007 as vice-director of the Workers’ Party.
If he does try to become North Korea’s de facto regent, Mr Chang will probably face important rivals. Kim Sul-song, the 36-year-old daughter of the late leader, was close to her father and still holds an important position in the state’s propaganda department.
Meanwhile, Kim Jong-nam, the former dictator’s eldest son, may also seek to rebuild his influence. Originally viewed as the most likely successor, the 40-year-old fell out of favour when he left the country to make a clandestine trip to Disneyland in Japan in 2001. But there are signs that he subsequently restored some of his reputation: in 2008, he called the doctors who treated the late leader after a stroke. He was occasionally allowed to speak on behalf of his father in meetings with foreign visitors.
Each of these three figures may try to be the power behind the throne. In the meantime, the official propaganda machine has sought to link the new leader with his grandfather, Kim Il-sung, the founder of North Korea who is still the country’s official head of state despite having died in 1994.
The Korean Central News Agency yesterday hailed the young Mr Kim as a “great person born of heaven,” a term previously reserved for his father and grandfather. The Workers’ Party newspaper also described Mr Kim as “born of Mount Paektu”, the country’s most venerated site and supposed birthplace of his father.
The country’s neighbours fear that the new leader may try to prove his mettle by provoking a sudden crisis. Both Japan and South Korea have placed their armed forces on high alert.