North Korea’s increasing aggression appears puzzling. On the surface, it seems Kim Jong-Il has nothing to gain except attention. However, a pattern is forming that indicates that the provocations are tied to the succession process as Kim Jong-Il prepares to hand power over to his third son, Kim Jong-Un.
It is understandable why Kim Jong-Il is fearful about the fate of the regime when he passes. Over half of the population is now getting news from outside the country and the regime has had to form new police units in the wake of unprecedented outcries against the government. The regime had to actually back down because of the reaction of the people to plans to issue a new currency and ban old bank notes and foreign currency. The uneasiness of the regime was plain for all to see when it said it would destroy any loudspeakers broadcasting in from the South.
The regime recognizes that the population’s awakening to their harsh humanitarian situation could jeopardize the succession process. The regime is executing high-level officials and according to Professor Toshimitsu Shigemura, an expert on North Korea at Waseda University, this is because of an internal struggle in the regime. He says that about 1,000 officials have been arrested and 20 to 30 have been executed.
Victor Fic is a Seoul-based special correspondent for economics and defense issues for Asia-Pacific Business and Technology Review and other publications, told FrontPage that Kim Jong-Un faces some obstacles.
“The young man lacks any legitimacy. He is generations removed from the Kim Il-Sung generation that claimed to defeat Imperial Japan and founded North Korea in 1948. Yes, Kim Jong-Il was born afterward, but he was son of the ‘living god,’ Kim Il-Sung,” Fic said.
Fic also said that Kim Jong-Il led the regime’s propaganda efforts in the late 1960s and a personality cult was created for him. Kim Jong-Un does not have that and “has no experience at all.”
Kim Jong-Un faces two additional obstacles according to Fic.
“The Confucian values that have guided Koreans for centuries mandate that power should pass to Kim Jong-Il’s oldest son, Kim Young-nam. However, Kim Jong-Il deems him ‘too effeminate,’” he said. He added that he also questions whether the “geriatric officer class will take orders from a visibly younger man.”
Kim Jong-Il seems to believe that high tension with outside powers can hold the regime together as power is transferred. Shortly after North Korea conducted a nuclear test last year, Jong-Il had the top officials pledge their loyalty to Jong-Un. The close timing of those two events cannot be a coincidence.
Now, British intelligence believes that Jong-Un is the one that ordered the sinking of the South Korean Cheonan on March 26. This attack was part of a calculated effort to raise tension and apparently, warm the military up to taking orders from the future leader of the country. Shortly following the attack, North Korea accused the South Korean army of crossing the border and opening fire. Five properties at the jointly-operated Mt. Kumgang were seized and South Korean personnel began being kicked out. Two North Korean agents were arrested in the South as they plotted to assassinate a high-level defector living there. This was a systematic effort to provoke a crisis.
The North Koreans recently responded to joint military exercises between the U.S. and South Korea by threatening to begin a “sacred war” and use its “nuclear deterrence.” This may be connected to a plan to carry out another nuclear test, as it was reported in the spring that the regime was going to do so during the summer. At the same time, five South Korean websites including those belonging to the President and Foreign Ministry have been hit with cyber attacks. The North Koreans carried out a major cyber attack on the U.S. and South Korea last year.
These actions are also connected to the succession process. In a sign that some are interpreting as preparation for Kim Jong-Il’s passing, a huge statue of the “Dear Leader” has been erected. This was previously forbidden. Professor Shigemura says that “it means that Kim Jong-il will be losing his power, or the successor is coming.” A South Korean intelligence official agreed, saying “The emergence of statues of a leader signifies the end of his reign.” The ruling party has also announced that it will choose new leaders in September, another move seen as a way of putting those loyal to Kim Jong-Un and his circle in key power positions. There is speculation that this meeting will be used to announce the transfer of power. If the pattern holds, that means we should expect major provocations around that time.
If Kim Jong-Il does not step down in September, his death or voluntary departure from power is still a near-term event. He is believed to have had a stroke that partially paralyzed him. He disappears from the public for extended periods of time, and reportedly is suffering from kidney failure. South Korean intelligence says that he is having memory loss, is making “nonsense statements,” and is showing symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. It is worth pondering who is making the decisions and if it is Kim Jong-Il, how his mental health will affect his decision-making.
Unfortunately, Kim Jong-Un will not be any better than his father when he takes the reigns. He is said by MI6 to have an “explosive temper” and suffer from severe hypertension. Aside from that, little is known about him.
North Korea must be watched with a close eye over the next few months. If the regime has acted this aggressively in the lead-up to the handover of power, it is frightening to think what is planned for the handover itself.