The Rise of Kim Jong-Un

What we don't know about the Dear Leader's possible successor.

Figuring out just who will rule North Korea when Kim Jong Il exits the scene has become something of a global parlor game.

In January 2009, the South Korean news agency, Yonhap, reported that Kim Jong Il's third and youngest son, Kim Jong-un, had been nominated to succeed his father around Jan. 8, the younger Kim's birthday. Although there was no corroborating information from the North Korean media (and there still is none), Yonhap's articles cited sources with close ties to the North Korean leadership. Then in April, Yonhap reported that Kim Jong-un had been appointed to the National Defense Commission (NDC) in an unnamed capacity. Whether any of this is true is debatable, but for those of us who read the tea leaves in Pyongyang for a living, the growing focus on the third son as the successor appears to be reaching a critical mass.

The South Korean and Japanese media began reporting on Kim Jong-un in 2003 and have done so sporadically ever since. Focused on the succession issue, their reports tend to be highly speculative and often contradictory.

According to Kim Jong Il's former personal chef, Kim Jong-un was born in 1983 or 1984 to Kim's third wife, Ko Hyong-hui, and is allegedly his father's favorite son. Unlike his brother Kim Jong-chol, Kim Jong-un has a more forthright character and, some sources say, has exhibited leadership skills. He is rumored to have studied at the International School of Berne in Guemligen, Switzerland. Upon returning to North Korea sometime after 2000, his studies continued, most likely at Kim Il Sung Military University. There are varying reports that he speaks German, French, and English.

Kim Jong-un's career background has been just as opaque. In 2004, reports began to surface that he and brother Kim Jong-chol were accompanying their father on inspections of military installations. In 2007, a flurry of reports emerged placing the third son in either the Korean Workers' Party's (KWP's) powerful Organization Guidance Department, where Kim Jong Il began his career in 1964, or the Korean People's Army's influential General Political Bureau. Both of these bodies are charged with surveillance and monitoring of the regime's powerful party, military, and security bodies.

There are also reports that Kim Jong-un may share some of the ailments of his father, such as diabetes, and might have been in a car accident last year. Therefore, his health is in question.

In the months after Kim Jong Il's apparent stroke in August 2008, the South Korean media began to speculate on succession. According to their articles, Kim Jong-un had the support of his father's current wife, Kim Ok, and the first vice director of the Organization Guidance Department, Yi Je-kang. Kim Jong Il's brother-in-law, Jang Song-taek (who is married to Kim's sister, Kim Kyong-hui), was rumored to be the key backer of Kim's oldest son, Kim Jong-nam, who has spent most of his time outside North Korea since he was caught in 2001 by Japanese officials while to trying sneak into Japan on a false passport.

In February 2009, Yonhap reported that Jang (director of the KWP's Administrative Department, which oversees much of North Korea's security apparatus) had shifted his support to Kim Jong-un in light of Kim Jong Il's special affection for his third son and out of consideration for his own future political power. According to senior North Korean defectors in South Korea, Jang reached a deal with Kim Jong Il. Worried about being purged, as he was in 2004 for becoming too powerful within the regime, Jang agreed to throw his support behind Kim Jong-un. In return, Kim Jong Il has allowed Jang to engineer the succession by placing his allies in key posts throughout the regime. Many of the recent key appointments allegedly have Jang's backing. The new chief of the general staff, Yi Yong-ho, is allegedly close to Jang, as is the new minister of the People's Armed Forces.

The development of a collective leadership centered on Jang appears to have emerged out of the recent meeting of the Supreme People's Assembly. Some analysts point to the NDC, of which Kim Jong-un is now reportedly a member, as the platform through which the succession will be carried out, much as the KWP was Kim Jong Il's platform. In addition to Jang, the NDC is now populated with powerful military and security officials with ties to Jang, including vice chairmen Kim Yong-jun and O Kuk-yol and members Chu Sang-song (minister of public security) and U Tong-juk (deputy director of the State Security Department). Many think this collective leadership, which probably extends beyond the NDC to the party as well, will provide the support network for a dynastic succession. In this scenario, Kim Jong-un would be the public face of North Korea, while Jang led behind the scenes.

When the succession will be made public is a critical question. Some Pyongyang watchers speculate that it will be attached to an auspicious date in North Korean history. Many point to April 2012, which would mark the 100th anniversary of Kim Il Sung's birth. Of course, the health of Kim Jong Il, which has appeared to worsen in recent months, will probably drive the timing of this announcement.

What would the post-Kim Jong Il era mean for the stability of North Korea? Although few experts foresee a collapse of the regime, many wonder whether the senior leadership will hold together or fall prey to factionalism. Jang's agreement to support Kim Jong-un apparently unifies the key individuals within the regime. For this reason, many Pyongyang watchers think the succession is already a done deal.

Whether this governing structure will last is a big question. North Korea, after all, does not have a history of collective leadership. If the reports to date are accurate, it makes sense that Kim Jong Il has tried to build the collective leadership around someone within his family. But, forecasting on what will happen after Kim Jong Il is highly speculative. Whether Jang will continue to support Kim Jong-un, shift his allegiance back to Kim Jong-nam, or move to take the leadership mantle for himself, which could lead to an outright power struggle, is anyone's guess. Rest assured, we'll be watching closely.



The Bourgeois Revolution

How the global middle class declared war on democracy.

Most days, the scene around Democracy Monument, a set of giant statues in the center of the old part of Bangkok, seems almost like a carnival. Pushcart vendors hawk everything from dried squid to ripe mangoes, and backpackers haggle with tuk-tuk drivers for a ride in their tiny, three-wheeled taxis.

But over the past year, as public anger over the alleged corruption of a series of Thai governments has reached a crescendo, a different, angrier sort of crowd has been gathering there. Last fall, tens of thousands of Bangkokians dressed in the yellow symbolizing Thailand's monarchy descended to call for Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's resignation and for a transformation of the country's electoral system. Now that a series of protests have forced Thaksin into exile and installed a new prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, the yellow-shirts are facing protests of their own, from Thaksin's red-shirted working-class allies. But elite opinion in Thailand still views the yellow-shirted protesters, led by a group called the People's Alliance for Democracy, as reformers fighting for the rule of law, while the red shirts are seen as an unruly mob. Tactics aside, this is not a useful division: Abhisit's middle-class supporters are not reformers, but antidemocratic reactionaries. Their perceived status as progressives clouds the truth, and it also throws a veil over one of the most confusing evolutions in developing countries over the last decade: the rise of the democracy-hating middle class.

It wasn't so long ago -- just 17 years -- that many of these same activists also fought battles in the streets of the Thai capital: middle-class Bangkokians, students, and businesspeople, and other elites. Today's yellow-shirted protesters at first seem like the same crowd: shop owners and office workers, wielding expensive cellphones and the political power typically reserved for the most influential bloc of the electorate in any country.

But the difference is that the protesters in the 1990s were fighting for democracy against a coup that had toppled an elected government. Despite its name, the People's Alliance is explicitly antidemocratic. In its platform, the group seeks election reform measures that are basically meant to slash the power of the rural poor, who comprise the majority of Thais. In the minds of the Thai middle class, poor voters only vote for politicians like the populist Thaksin because they're offered incentives such as a few baht on voting day. One former U.S. ambassador to Thailand puts it bluntly: The middle class disdain[s] the rural masses and see[s] them as willing pawns to the corrupt vote buyers. Instead of fighting for democratic rights, in other words, the People's Alliance is protesting against them.

This shift from a reformist middle class to a reactionary one over a mere two decades should be surprising. But, unfortunately, Thailand is not alone. Across the developing world, from Russia to Venezuela to Mexico, as democracy faces new threats -- elected leaders who disdain its institutions, rising corruption, and nationalistic economic plans -- middle classes, once the vanguard of democracy, have increasingly turned against it. For the first time in decades, democracy activists are beginning to wonder whether building a strong middle class solidifies or threatens freedom's global spread. Yet because the middle-class-equals-democracy theory has become so entrenched, if it is proven wrong, activists, democracy-promotion groups, and world leaders will not know how to replace it. In other words, they won't have a clue about how to actually build democracy.


For years, political theorists have argued that developing a healthy middle class is the key to any country's democratization. To paraphrase the late political scientist Samuel Huntington: Economic growth and industrialization usually lead to the creation of a middle class. As its members become wealthier and more educated, the middle class turns increasingly vocal, demanding more rights to protect its economic gains.

But over the past decade, the antidemocratic behavior of the middle class in many countries has threatened to undermine this conventional wisdom. Although many developing countries have created trappings of democracy, such as regular elections, they often failed to build strong institutions, including independent courts, impartial election monitoring, and a truly free press and civil society.

The middle class's newfound disdain for democracy is counterintuitive. After all, as political and economic freedoms increase, its members often prosper because they are allowed more freedom to do business. But, paradoxically, as democracy gets stronger and the middle class grows richer, it can realize it has more to lose than gain from a real enfranchisement of society.

Soon after acquiring democracy, urban middle classes often grasp the frustrating reality that political change costs them power. Outnumbered at the ballot box, the middle class cannot stop populists such as Thaksin or Venezuelan President Hugo Chvez. Once the middle class realizes it cannot stop the elected tyrants, it also comes to another, shattering realization: If urban elites can no longer control elections, all of their privileges -- social, economic, cultural -- could be threatened.

Recent antigovernment protests in Bolivia, for example, stem directly from a fear of loss in status. The demonstrators, led by leading businessman Branko Marinkovic, hail from the country's wealthier eastern half, where many locals disdain President Evo Morales, a populist former union leader and proud member of the poorer indigenous class. They claim he will weaken their traditional power and riches by instituting land reforms and continuing to nationalize the country's petroleum resources, which mostly come from the east. We're turning into another Zimbabwe, in which economic chaos will become the norm, Marinkovic told the New York Times two years ago -- even though Morales, despite his sometimes erratic policymaking, has overseen the strongest Bolivian growth in years.

Middle-class conservatism may even be preventing some countries from making the leap toward democracy. In China, the biggest global exception to democratic change, the past three decades of economic reform have delivered most of the fruits to the urban east coast. There, per capita income in some provinces is now 10 times that of China's interior, and the country's income inequality rivals that of the most stratified Latin American societies. For its benefit, the Communist Party even plays upon middle-class status anxiety by tacitly stoking fears that full democracy, with real freedom of movement for all Chinese, would result in millions of rural peasants swamping the cities.

At first, middle-class status fears usually just lead to fighting within the political system: forming new political parties, launching anti-government newspapers or Web sites, or other traditional tactics. Malaysia is now in this stage, with opposition parties led by longtime activist Anwar Ibrahim just beginning to form into a cohesive bloc.

But, as urban elites realize their impotence, they are increasingly abandoning the system, as in Bolivia, the Philippines (where protesters have launched massive street rallies intended to topple the government), and many other countries. And once they turn against elected leaders, angry middle classes, convinced they are right, seem willing to use any means to topple presidents, with catastrophic results. Even if the bourgeois revolutionaries successfully carry out an armed coup, the failure rate for governing is high: Compared with the past, when militaries could just appoint a few capable technocrats to run the government, today even developing economies like Thailand or Pakistan are closely linked to global markets and require far more advanced management to maintain domestic and international investor confidence. After the Thai Army took power in 2006, for example, it bumbled from one economic mishap to the next, such as when it suggested it might instill capital controls, a move that led to a run on the Thai stock market.

If military control doesn't work, a return to soft authoritarian governance, as by a prime minister essentially chosen by elites, will frequently fail as well because the public will no longer accept this kind of oligarchic rule. In the past, the poor in many of these societies might have accepted a government ruled by elites, but not any more, now that they have tasted real voting. In Nigeria, for example, oil-rich provinces that have become accustomed to democratic rule are no longer willing to hand over nearly all petroleum revenues to the central government. Instead, they have launched massive demonstrations in the Niger Delta, sometimes holding oil workers hostage while they wait for their demands to be met.

And in Thailand, masses of working-class voters, furious that the People's Alliance pushed out the prime minister they supported and replaced him with a leader sympathetic to the old elites, have launched their own sieges of parliament. In recent weeks, the red-shirted working-class protesters, following closely Thaksin's calls for change from abroad, have stormed through Bangkok and the resort area of Pattaya, forcing the Thai government to cancel the conference of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations that was meant to be held there. Clashing with Army troops in the streets, the protesters wielded sticks and Molotov cocktails, provoking the government to institute a state of emergency.

As with the Thai example, by sparking counterprotests and, in some cases, outright anarchy, the middle class is actually undermining its very claims. Taking to the streets, they argue that they are bolstering freedom of expression and thereby strengthening their countries' democratic institutions. In reality, by undermining the decisions of elected leaders and fomenting chaos, they are actually weakening these institutions.

This cycle of protest and counterprotest, then, could be the most damaging blow inflicted by the middle class. Where rich and poor once worked together in fighting for democracy, they now wind up pitted against each other, leaving a permanent rift in society and an ominous cloud over their country's democratic future -- and over the future of democracy-building efforts around the world, as we struggle to come up with a new blueprint for making democracy work.

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