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Decision-making in a Post-Kim Chong-il North Korea


By Ken Gause

The death of Kim Chong-il does not only mean a transition in leadership as can be seen with the apparent coronation of Kim Chong-un as the successor. It also likely means a change in the leadership structure, which will potentially have a dramatic impact on how Pyongyang makes decisions and how those decisions are translated into policy. From what can be gleaned from the first days after Kim’s death, a continuity of government plan has been put in place to ensure the smooth transition in power. What is not clear is whether this plan lays out a framework by which the leadership can begin to make decisions on the range of issues facing the regime.

A close reading of the North Korean media suggests that the so-called “collective leadership” forming around the young leader is drawn from a number of powerful Party and military leaders who had strong ties to Kim Chong-il and held powerful portfolios within his leadership structure, namely Kim Kyong-hui, Chang Song-taek, O Kuk-yol, and Yi Yong-ho:

  • Kim Kyong-hui: Kim Chong-un’s aunt and member of the Politburo. She has figured prominently in the media coverage of the mourning ceremony, though she was listed in her expected spot among the Politburo members on the funeral list. She most likely serves as a figure of continuity as the transition moves forward; however, her ties to Kim Chong-un are highly suspect given her long-standing ties to Kim Chong-il’s oldest son, Kim Chong-nam.
  • Chang Song-taek: Kim Chong-un’s uncle, alternate member of the Politburo and member of the Central Military Committee (CMC). As the story goes, Chang made a deal with Kim Chong-il in early 2009 to support Kim Chong-un in return for Kim Chong-il’s permission to build his own patronage network. The defacto head of the North Korean internal security apparatus, Chang is the real wildcard in any succession scenario. His support will be vital for his nephew’s early consolidation of power. He, however, could stand in the way of Kim’s long term survival.
  • O Kuk-yol: Vice Chairman of the National Defense Commission. The O family has been the primary support family to the Kim family since the founding of the regime. A former chief of the General Staff, O Kuk-yol has the portfolio within the regime for crisis management and sits atop a vast apparatus of special forces. A rather shadowy figure, he could serve as a counterweight to Chang Song-taek within the senior leadership and will likely play a role in ensuring the loyalty of the high command.
  • Yi Yongho: Chief of the General Staff, Member of the Politburo Presidium, Vice Chairman of the CMC. The son of Yi Pong-su, one of Kim Il-sung’s close partisan supporters during the war against the Japanese, Yi Yong-ho is considered to be one of Kim Chong-un’s guardians within the high command. Presumably he would be involved in any decision-making regarding security and the armed forces.

Under Kim Chong-il, regime decision-making was complex. Widely referred to as a hub and spoke leadership management style, Kim was the ultimate decision-maker across the policy issues. He reached out, often through informal alliances, to key associates to execute decisions. Policy options emerging from the bottom up went through his Personal Secretariat, which packaged them for Kim’s approval or rejection. No other checks and balances existed within the system. As such, policy shifts could be embarked upon as long as Kim signed off on the shift.

With Kim’s passing, the lynch pin for the leadership structure has been removed. More likely than not, Kim Chong-un cannot fill his father’s shoes at this point. It will take time for him to consolidate his power, if ever. That said, the regime still must make decisions. To date, three major decisions seem to have been made under the new leadership configuration and none really have Kim Chong-un’s fingerprints on them. On the contrary, they seem to suggest that decision-making has devolved away from the hub to the spokes.

  • Although Decision Number 1 to halt field exercises and return to the barracks was allegedly signed by Kim Chong-un, more than likely the decision fell within the portfolio for crisis management headed by O Kuk-yol, possibly with the support of Yi Yong-ho as Chief of the General Staff. This was a decision that had to be made quickly as part of the smooth transition in power. While Kim Chong-un may have been aware of the need for such an order as part of a continuity in government plan, he would have had to rely on more august leaders to make it happen.
  • In the hours after Kim’s death, security measures were put into effect that closed the border withChina, closed the markets, and confined North Koreans to their homes. Public security officers patrolled the streets to ensure compliance. These decisions fell within Chang Song-taek’s portfolio for internal security. Although Kim Chong-un has been rumored to be involved in the affairs of regime security, his knowledge of the steps that need to be taken to clamp the country under wraps is probably still growing, nothing to say of the relationships he would need to garner in order to ensure that such orders are carried out.
  • The mourning exercise and the coronation of Kim Chong-un as successor appears to have come directly from the playbook exercised by the Propaganda and Agitation apparatus in 1994. The arrangement of the principals and the protocol followed has the feel and look of stage management. The decisions regarding the presentation of the transfer of power were likely carried out under the watchful eye of Kim Ki-nam as the Party Secretary for Propaganda. This is an example where the senior members of the collective leadership (cited above) signed off on a decision made outside their circle.

Over the next week, as the mourning process leads up to the funeral on December 28, decision-making will likely remain along portfolio lines. The problem for this new leadership will arise as it seeks to take decisions that run across portfolios. This is where the tensions will arise and the in the absence of an ultimate decision-maker, the ability to build consensus could break down.

As we move forward, there are several things to pay attention to for clues to how well the regime is coping with this new decision-making paradigm. The first will be the New Year’s essay published on 1 or 2 January. This essay will highlight the accomplishments of 2011 and lay out the agenda for 2012. If military objectives are given priority, it could suggest a conservative decision-making process whereby the regime is going to adhere firmly within established boundaries. However, if civilian objectives are stressed, some real movement within the leadership could be afoot.

Another issue the regime will have to deal with is food aid and what to do about the Six Party Talks. Both entail engaging the outside world, something that will demand a high degree of consensus within the regime and possibly a possibly a decision to move beyond the boundaries set down by Kim Chong-il before he died. While the move to reengage with the international community on food aid will not be surprising given the progress the regime has to show as it moves toward April and 100th anniversary of Kim Il-sung’s birth, if the regime were to agree to return to the Six Party Talks, it would suggest a higher degree of cohesion in decision-making than is currently suggested by the atmospherics surrounding the transition.

Finally, the potential for provocations remains a real concern for the international community. The regime could use such events to build cohesion around the new leadership. Decision-making regarding such provocations in the past were normally close hold operations signed off on by Kim Chong-il. How the calculus to support such provocations will be derived in the future is not entirely clear and whether anyone within the collective leadership, but outside the military, would have a veto over such operations is highly speculative. If such an incident occurs,Pyongyangwatchers will be left to consider whether this means Kim Chong-un is in charge? Has he been co-opted by hardline generals? Or are there other machinations at play? The answer may not be forthcoming, but if it is, it will speak volumes about how this regime is now operating.

Ken Gause is the director of the International Affairs Group at CNA, a research organization located in Alexandria, VA. He is the author of the book North Korea Under Kim Chong-il: Power, Politics, and Prospects for Change, which was published by Praeger in August 2011. He also authored a paper in November entitled North Korea After Kim Chong-il: Leadership Dynamics and Potential Crisis Scenarios, which can be obtained on CNA’s website (www.cna.org). The views expressed here are his own.

Photo from bryanh’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons. 

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6 Responses to “Decision-making in a Post-Kim Chong-il North Korea”

  1. James_Dealy1981 says:

    Why does Ken insist on spelling Kim Jong Il in a manner that is completely inconsistent with the rest of this website, North Korea’s own spelling, and the spelling of all English language Korean press?
    Do South Koreans insist on changing the spelling of the names of US leaders to fit with their two-tiered romanization system just on a whim, or do they respect the original spelling? I think you will find it is the latter.
    Good analysis though, but this kind of thing irks me!

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