Kim Jong Un Survivability Scorecard: How to Tell If He's Hanging On

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Can Kim Jong Il's son and heir navigate North Korea's treacherous and secretive palace politics?

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Kim Jong Un at his father's funeral / KCNA

Now that the Korea Central News Agency (KCNA) has officially announced the start of the Kim Jong Un era, the major questions on the minds of North Korean observers revolve around the durability and sustainability of the North Korean leadership under Kim Jong Un. Another way of making judgements regarding this process is to assess whether the succession process is going according to plan. The 1994 succession experience offers the North Koreans a template for how to successfully manage succession and offers a scorecard for assessing the durability of the Kim Jong Un regime.

In the first few days, the North Korean leadership has made no obvious mistakes, nor has there been any evidence that the succession process is veering off track. The North Korean media has reinforced Kim Jong Un's role, with international diplomats implicity acknowledging his position and KCNA bestowing on Kim Jong Un the titles of Great Successor and Supreme Commander. I believe that each of these elements is designed to reinforce perceptions of the inevitability of Kim Jong Un as the next leader, with the funeral being a major event designed to affirm Kim Jong Un's new role at the same time that he pays respects to his father. This will also be the first opportunity to make judgments regarding his leadership style independent of his father.

Beyond the funeral ceremony, the calendar holds a series of events that North Korea will be able to use to its advantage to reinforce the centrality of Kim Jong Un and that therefore provide opportunities for external judgements regarding how the process is going, including:

Jan. 1: New Year's address. North Korea normally issues a joint editorial or speech by the leader assessing the challenges and goals for the year. The 2012 address may have already been written, but can be scoured for deviations from the past and for evidence of possible rewriting post Kim Jong Il's death. How the joint editorial is issued and whether Kim Jong Un might decide to personally deliver it as well as the substance it contains will offer some early clues to the actual role Kim Jong Un is and will be playing.

Jan. 8: Kim Jong Un's 28th birthday and his first as leader. How will it be celebrated this year, and what messages are conveyed on this date?

Feb. 16: Kim Jong Il's 70th birthday. Still well within the mourning period, how will this birthday be honored and what roles will Kim Jong Un and other leaders play in any commemorations on that date?

April 15: Kim Il-sung's 100th birthday. This was to be the big celebration of the year, marking the establishment of North Korea as a "strong and prosperous state." But what are the benchmarks for assessing Kim Jong Un's performance toward that goal? Arguably, the benchmarks may shift to "are you better off than you were 17 years ago?" The famine that occurred in the midst of the Kim Il-sung-Kim Jong Il succession process presents an opportunity to establish a low bar for assessing Kim Jong Un's performance.

Beyond these dates, what other signs should be watched? Intelligence on how the succession might be going wrong will be much harder to obtain precisely because KCNA will not be reporting it and news of internal developments in North Korea remains hard to come by. In any event, much of the activity that would spark greatest interest inevitably is likely to occur underneath the surface. However, here are a few things to watch for that might suggest things are going very badly.
  • Unexplained disappearances, especially of Kim Jong Un's family members. Could be evidence of friction that would weaken allies and capability to maintain political control.

  • Overt challenges to Kim Jong Un's authority or references to critical roles by individuals other than Kim Jong Un. Everyone is watching the activities of Jang Song Taek, Kim Kyong Hui, Yi Yong Ho, and Oh Kuk Ryol with special interest.

  • Evidence of friction between the party and military authorities, especially between the National Defense Commission and the Workers' Party of Korea. Kim Jong Un has not received a role in the National Defense Commission, which was the seat from which his father governed. If these two organizations within the North Korean bureaucracy come into conflict, it might be evidence of a serious institutional cleavage inside North Korea.

  • Evidence of new competition among various arms of the state, especially competition for external resources, and particularly with regard to the pattern by which procurements of goods from China and other external sources are managed. Follow the money; whoever is leader will need financing in order to survive. Any contender for power will need a capacity to finance his challenge or the ability to take away from his colleagues' power base.

  • Unusual military activity or precursors to a coup attempt. Kim Jong Il, we learned belatedly, survived a challenge from a unit based in Hamkyungdo in the mid-1990s at the height of the famine. It was ruthlessly put down, but it is important to recognize based on that experience that Kim Jong Un may face, and could potentially survive, such a direct challenge to his rule.

The most difficult aspect of assessing whether things are going wrong is that, like our intelligence collection capabilities that did not appear to provide effective warning that Kim Jong Il had passed away in advance of the official announcement, the critical developments that constitute a serious challenge to the Kim Jong Un leadership will also likely be lagging indicators of circumstances that have already changed. As a result, it is likely that all the parties are going to be in a reactive rather than a shaping mode, and the question is how well we are in sync regarding our assessments of the motivations and implications of the changes we see on the surface.

This article originally appeared at CFR.org, an Atlantic partner site.
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Scott A. Snyder is senior fellow for Korea studies and director of the program on U.S.-Korea policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. He writes regularly at Asia Unbound.

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