The prospect of Kim Jong Il's death has loomed over Asia ever since he suffered a major stroke in 2008. And yet we have still managed to be surprised: Official word of the Dear Leader's demise has inserted a profound sense of uncertainty about the future of North Korea and its neighborhood, driving down markets throughout the region, and spiking popular concern in South Korea about what comes next.
Yet it will be machinations inside Pyongyang -- not the hand-wringing of those of us outside the country -- that in the coming days, weeks, and months will have profound implications for the future of the Korean peninsula and the entire Asia-Pacific region. Taking into account North Korea's impoverished and imprisoned population, its large and nuclear-armed military, and the global strategic significance of its neighbors, the stakes are astronomical.
North Korea was founded by Gen. Kim Il Sung from the ashes of Japanese occupation. With significant support from the Soviet Union, Kim (a.k.a. the Great Leader) established a Stalin-esque regime founded on fear, repression, and a cult of personality that raised Kim to the status of a god. Yet the Great Leader did not buy into his own immortality, and began grooming one of his sons, Kim Jong Il, to replace him upon his death. Kim the Younger (a.k.a. the Dear Leader) thus underwent a multi-decade process to consolidate his own base of power within the three pillars of the North Korean state -- the Korean Workers Party, the government bureaucracy, and the military -- so that, upon his father's death in 1994, he had already established a secure base of power from which to rule.
Kim Jong Il, however, apparently did not take the prospect of his own mortality seriously. It was not until after his 2008 stroke that serious succession planning appeared to take place. Previously moribund bureaucracies were revitalized and potential competitors were sent to the countryside or suffered fatal car crashes. The Dear Leader's 20-something son, Kim Jong Un -- now being hailed in Pyongyang as the Great Successor -- was made a full general (despite his lack of any military experience), named vice chairman of the Central Military Commission, and appointed to the Central Committee of the Korean Workers'' Party -- all moves to solidify his status as his father's official successor. Also promoted to general was Kim Jong Il's sister Kim Kyong Hui, whose husband Jang Song Taek is vice-chairman of the National Defense Commission and was seen by many as the Dear Leader's primary deputy.
Thus stands North Korea's leadership today: the not-so-dearly departed's twenty-something son and sister, both of whose promotions are little more than a year old, and the Dear Leader's apparently capable brother-in-law. Unlike his father, Kim Jong Un has not had nearly enough time to establish a personal base of power within the North Korean elite and bureaucracy and his ability to directly control the levers of power (especially the military) is questionable.
The plan appears to be that the new leader will continue to build his power base as his more established aunt and uncle manage the state in a kind of collective regency until the time is right for Kim Jong Un to take full power. Kim Jong Un can count on the legitimacy of the Kim family bloodline (which carries significant weight in North Korean propaganda), the relationships he has established so far, his gender (a cultural bias that prevents his aunt from taking power herself), and any residual loyalty elites may have to his father's arrangements.
Yet succession rarely goes according to plan. When the prospect of absolute power and unlimited resources are combined with familial intrigue and a military and civilian leadership whose ambitions have been tempered by decades of despotic rule, succession could become downright Shakespearean.