WASHINGTON—Appointments to North Korea’s National Defense Commission (NDC) during recent meetings of the country’s rubber-stamp parliament show that leaders of the tightly closed country have begun to finalize plans for a successor to the ailing Kim Jong Il, analysts say.
The 12-member NDC, chaired by supreme leader Kim Jong Il, is the most powerful policy-making body in North Korea and controls the world’s fifth largest army.
But experts suggest that leaders may be grooming a recently appointed member of the NDC to take over following a noticeable decline in Kim’s health since he reportedly suffered a stroke last August.
Scott Snyder, director of the Asia Foundation’s U.S.-Korea Center, said scanty first-hand information makes it difficult to speculate about leadership politics in North Korea, but he suggested the country has been moving toward “conservative rectification” in recent years.
“Given the political risks related to succession, it is pretty clear that domestic imperatives are dominating North Korean thinking and that we are seeing a rather striking turn inward in terms of leadership focus and priorities,” he said.
Snyder said that the appointment of representatives from the North Korea’s state security sector to the NDC signaled a significant change for what had been an exclusively military-dominated group.
Additionally, the appointment of Kim Jong Il’s brother-in-law, Jang Song Taek, to the NDC may indicate that he is being prepared to take on more responsibility, Snyder said.
“Combined with his appearances at Kim's side in recent months, the convening of the Supreme People’s Assembly, the launching of the rocket, and the apparent adoption of constitutional revisions, all of this suggests that we are at a turning point in the composition of North Korea's leadership and these changes are most probably related to a succession process,” he said.
No formal succession plan
Bruce Klingner, senior research fellow for Northeast Asia at the Heritage Foundation, said recent images showing a frail and emaciated Kim Jong Il raise concerns over the ramifications of a potential leadership change in North Korea.
“Kim’s sudden departure would raise alarms over the transfer of power, since no formal succession plan has been announced,” he said.
“There would be a greater likelihood of an orderly transfer of power if a plan had been disseminated internally and under way for some time prior to Kim's passing from the scene,” Klingner said.
“Similarly, if Kim was ill but still functioning, he could ensure that any potential rivals were kept at bay until his successor had gained sufficient influence on his own,” he said.
Klingner said that a sudden incapacitation or death in the absence of a formal plan could trigger more dire, though less probable, scenarios.
“For instance, competing rivals could appeal to military units for support, leading to concern over control of North Korea's nuclear weapons. A power vacuum or extensive unrest could lead Seoul or Beijing to consider intervening to protect the North Korean populace or their own interests,” he said.
Nicholas Eberstadt, of the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, agreed that the lack of a formal plan of succession presents challenges for the current leadership.
“He’s in much more perilous health than [his father, Kim Il Sung] was when his dad was his age. And when his dad was his age, he’d been pulling the strings behind the scenes to grease the coronation path for his son Kim Jong Il for a decade. We don’t see anything like that with the Dear Leader and his kids,” Eberstadt said, using the North Koreans’ own term for their leader.
Reports also suggest that none of Kim Jong Il’s three acknowledged sons would be fit for taking on a leadership role, either because they have fallen out of favor with Kim or because they lack sufficient experience.
If North Korea’s leaders believe they need more time before one of Kim’s sons comes to power, Jang Song Taek might serve in the interim.
“Some of us will infer that the brother-in-law is an important player in this situation. And maybe he is. Getting appointed to the National Defense Commission would certainly seem to suggest that,” Eberstadt said.
But Eberstadt acknowledged that appointing a leader not directly related to Kim Jong Il could present a problem by undermining the regime’s authority, given the state’s long ties to the Kim family.
“How do you exercise authority if you don’t have the bloodline? One way you exercise authority is by ‘de-Stalinizing’ North Korea. By separating yourself from the Kim family and pointing out that the Kim family isn’t perfect. That they might even have made a mistake or two,” Eberstadt said.
“But if you start to pull on that thread in the sleeve, I think you unravel the whole state. I don’t think you can get away with a limited tactical ‘de-Kimming’ of the North Korean state. If you start to go down that path then you expose the whole cavern of lies, and I don’t think you can stop,” he said.
Heritage Foundation’s Klingner said that regardless of who emerges as a successor, the new leader would most likely pursue the same policies as Kim Jong Il.
“The next leader would have less of a power base than Kim and would be more reliant on support from senior party and military leaders who are overwhelmingly nationalist and resistant to change. He would have to base his own legitimacy on maintaining the legacy of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il by continuing their policies,” Klingner said.
There is little evidence that a "reformer faction" exists within the government to advocate reforming the economy, opening the country to outside influence, reducing the regime's rhetoric and brinksmanship tactics, or abandoning its nuclear weapons programs.
“North Korea has perpetuated the image of factional in-fighting between ‘engagers’ and ‘hardliners’ as a negotiating tool to elicit additional benefits,” Klingner said.
Klingner added that irrespective of the accuracy of current rumors, they underscore the need for preparation for what he called an “inevitable leadership change” in North Korea.
“The U.S. must first ensure it has prepared diplomatic, economic, and military responses to the range of potential scenarios that would ensue from a regime collapse in Pyongyang,” Klingner said.
Reported and written by Joshua Lipes. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.