Polygonic

That weren't no DJ, that was hazy cosmic jive

The man who would be Kim

Kim Jong-Il is not a dictator, and probably has only the barest interest in being one.

There are lots of semi-decent reasons to say that – first of all, have we ever heard him do any dictating? We hear mostly about the pool parties, the cognac, the film collections. With good reason, as those are his principal areas of interest.

I’m going to try (to straighten things out in my own head, mostly) to sketch out what I mean. As with everything in North Korea, outside observers can only infer. “Pyongyangology” (o.k., the term doesn’t exist, but why shouldn’t it?) is a dark art that blends symbolism, chance, theory, and observer’s bias. Only once in a while does one come upon a fact.

So any tantalising morsel of facthood emerging from beyond the event horizon of North Korean politics is seized on by outside enthusiasts with great, err, enthusiasm. The newest signal of movement within the governing superstructure is an extraordinary meeting of the Korean Workers’ Party (KWP) Politburo this September. When I say extraordinary, it’s because this is only the third time the Politburo has ever met. The last meeting was in 1966.

South Korean intelligence understands that Kim Jong-Un, youngest son of Jong-Il, is being manoeuvred to inherit power from his father, in an emergent tradition of “meandering” royal lineage, one which veers across birth order and locates itself in the most “honourable” eligible inheritor. One could see their system as an elective monarchy, with monarchical candidates drawn exclusively from the Kim Family, and chosen by an electoral college consisting exclusively of the KWP Politburo (meeting in Sept.) and the National Defence Commission – the organising arm of the Korean People’s Army (KPA), and, since 1998, the highest legislative body in the land, with more clout than the Supreme People’s Assembly (the legislature overall, which itself convened twice this year, unusually).

I say “since 1998” with a purpose. This is a year that Pyongyangologists must obsess over, especially in the context of succession.

Again, I’m blending fact with speculation and imagination. But bear with me, as I try to sketch out an image of how this country might be working. First, insight from North Korea Leadership Watch:

Kim Jong Un’s road to succession runs through the Korean Workers’ Party, if KJI’s history is a reliable guide. This Party Conference represents another phase of the succession, but may only be the prologue to a more definitive event further on. One credential Kim Jong Un does not possess is membership in the Supreme People’s Assembly. Kim Jong Il did not join the SPA until 1982, two years after the 6th Party Congress. Until Kim Jong Un is elected to the SPA, he shall continue to lack the most basic, superficial, credential to hold any significant government power in North Korea.

They are right, I think, that Jong-Un needs to hold some important jobs, and soon. But I don’t believe it’s because he actually needs the skills – it’s so that a plausible revolutionary narrative can be built around him, he can be held up as a remotely “qualified” leader, but the actual leading will never be done by him. Nor will it be primarily through the KWP, but through the “definitive event” that Michael Madden from NK Leadership Watch anticipates in the future. This would, I think, have to involve his getting a senior role in the National Defence Commission itself.

Tiny bit of history: how did we get to here?

Founding father Kim Il-Sung was the country’s president from the Korean War onwards, and presided over the Supreme People’s Assembly, a body populated by Korean Workers’ Party members. The Korean People’s Army were headed by a National Defence Commission, which was seen as subordinate to the People’s Assembly. It was a normal Stalinist arrangement, but with Maoist “cultural revolution” whammo sauce.

When Il-Sung was 68 years old, in 1980, he saw to it that his son Jong-Il would be heir apparent (ironically, Kim Jong-Il turns 69 in 2010, and succession talk is rife. An emerging tradition?). Years later, 1994, Kim Il-Sung dies. So, predictions (among those bold enough to predict anything in North Korea) suggested Kim Jong-Il would take over the job of president, and the state would either collapse, or continue as normal.

But neither thing happened. Four years went by with no official “crowning” of Jong-Il as leader, no announcement as to who was in charge, or what. The rationale was that Jong-Il needed to mourn his father’s death for three years before assuming his duties, as Confucianist dynastic tradition suggested (and North Korea is much more a medieval Confucian dynasty than anything like a Marxist revolutionary state). It was a plausible excuse given the conservative culture, the role of filial piety, son-father worship, all the rest of it. But there was much more happening.

By 1998, the Supreme People’s Assembly announced some changes to the system, something like this:

1) Since we all love our dear departed Kim Il-Sung so much, we decided he should be president forever, even though he’s died. That means we had to abolish the role of President on earth. We will always worship and love our Eternal President in the sky (any disagreements?)
2) Our man Kim Jong-Il can clearly not be the “president” now, but as we still need his wise and holy guidance, we gave him a different job: Chairman of the National Defence Commission. We know he was never a soldier and has no military experience. But he has good advisors, and he’s extraordinarily clever (and a messiah… no disagreements there).
3) Oh, that also meant we had to make the National Defence Commission the most powerful body in the whole government. More powerful than the Assembly. Long live Kim Jong-Il, etc.

What happened in 1998 was rather like a quiet, contained coup-d’etat of the Army over the Party. Some observers saw Kim Jong-Il’s “takeover” of the National Defence Commission as a sign of his irresistable power and influence. Whereas I think it’s much more about the Army appropriating the spiritualised power of the Kim Family that the personality cult has so successfully established.

The Army itself knows it relies on two powerful propaganda tools it can use to subdue the North Korean population: first, promote a constant and undying sense of impending emergency, with nations of the globe all chomping at the bit to invade and conquer. And second, wield the papal power of the Kim Family and its god-cult, promote worship of the Family, and by association, worship of the Army which is titularly led by that Family.

But while the Army needs the Kims to give them a veneer of dynastic legitimacy, prince regents such as Jang Song-Taek (Jong-Un’s uncle, who was named in June as National Defence Commission’s Vice-Chair… an ideal place to mentor a nephew as a future Full Chair, and ceremonial president) and senior military figures are doing the governing and setting the policy.

If the Kims are so powerless in real terms, why does this process take so long? Just because the real levers of power are in the NDC ranks doesn’t mean the Kims have no effective power. They are fully aware that without their royal endorsement of any policy piece, it will not go far. Different Kim potential-heirs could equally have their own KWP and KPA mentors who are extremely competitive between and amongst each other. And also, these succession dilemmas may never have been needed if Jong-Il’s eldest son Jong-Nam didn’t screw up his chances by being such a public buffoon.

Sorry, none of this leads to a natural conclusion. Only to say, a twice-annual meeting of the Assembly this year, the election of Jang Song-Taek as essential second in command (and his alleged closeness to Jong-Un) and a third-time-ever meeting of the KWP Politburo, seem to suggest that succession is being worked out.

In this whole storm of intrigue, though, I wouldn’t too get carried away as to how much it matters which Kim son, nephew, or love-child gets the nod. Whoever it is will be spending most of their time lounging at the pool, sipping cognac, and waiting for the generals to inform him what they’ve been deciding.

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