What If Kim Jong Il's Successor Isn't Ready?

The North Korean leader's 27-year-old son is next in line, but the military might not support him

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Kim Jong Il, far right, and son Kim Jong Un, second from left, salute a military parade in September / Reuters

Kim Jong Il probably knew he didn't have much time left when, 15 months ago, he held the first "Worker's Party Conference" -- a gathering of North Korea's political and military leaders -- in 30 years. There, he established his successor: Kim Jong Un, his heavy-set, Swiss-educated, and reportedly not very bright son, then 26 years old. Sure enough, North Korean state media, almost immediately after it announced Kim Jong Il's death, declared Kim Jong Un as the new leader.

Since September 2010's big conference, the state machinery has been turning constantly, and often noisily, in preparation for this day. There have been changes in official state history, cabinets have been reshuffled, an unprovoked shelling of a South Korean town likely meant to rally soldiers and civilians around the flag, and an endless output of Stalinist-style propaganda. Today, that machinery seems to have functioned well, as it often did under Kim Jong Il. But the question now is who will really run it and to what purpose.

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The greatest threat Kim Jong Il poses in death, just as in life, is not that his state will commit an act of unprovoked aggression, but that it will collapse. Though he likely spent much of his final year preparing for his son's smooth take-over, it may not have been enough time. What little we know of North Korea's leadership suggests that a regime under young Kim Jong Un could invite challenges from the military or even from his own political circle. We don't know for sure if Kim Jong Un has as much power as his father, but either way there is reason to worry about the state's stability under his rule. If he really is in complete control, the reports on his intelligence suggest he will stumble, at which points military leaders worried about the country's stability may be tempted to intervene. If, however, his power is less total, then that will invite jockeying between political and military leaders for influence, something that North Korea's tightly regimented political system was never made to account for.

The North Korean government is one of the most precarious and top-heavy in the world. It is poor, embattled from outside, and maintains power through some combination of threat of violence and overwhelming propaganda, which is another way of saying that the state tricks people into obeying a government that might not be as able to enforce its will as it claims. It has engineered into North Korean society extreme poverty as well as extreme reliance on the state for survival. It has trained a million-man-army to defend against a doomsday invasion it is certain is coming.

Though it's impossible to know for sure, there is some reason to believe that some North Korean officials have been undermining Kim Jong Un since his father's announcement last year. Some analysts suspected that the out-of-nowhere shelling of a South Korean town in November 2010 was meant to consolidate power in the military, away from Kim Jong Il's inexperienced son. Last December, a freight train carrying "birthday gifts" for Kim Jong Un was derailed in a suspected attack; it's hard to imagine anyone outside of the military pulling something of that scale off. In February, North Korean state media published a photo of the young heir looking through a pair of binoculars he was holding upside down, which some Pyongyang-watchers suspected might have been a deliberate swipe at Kim Jong Un.

North Korea's military would not be the first to turn against a newly appointed dictator it neither respected nor trusted. Just this year in Egypt, for example, the military's support of the February revolution looks increasingly like a move to take power from the aging President Hosni Mubarak, who was grooming his son -- also despised by the military -- to succeed him in his rule. Any dictator relies on his military for everything: his personal security, his ability to crush large-scale dissent, and not to mention the entire foundation of his rule. Dictators fall to military coups all the time.

Of course, the generals don't always agree on who should take over, and even if Kim Jong Un has little loyalty within the regime, some of his allies do. When Kim Jong Il put his son on the path to succession, he also promoted his sister, Kim Kyong Hui, who is often described as a ruthless power-broker within the regime. Kim Jong Il made a point to leave his most loyal general, Jang Song-Taek, in charge of "advising" his son. What happens if some of these senior family member or "advisers" disagree?

Whatever happens in Pyongyang's behind-the-scenes power struggles, the U.S. will almost certainly get pulled into it, as will North Korea's neighbors. The country has long used its nuclear program and random acts of military aggression as bargaining chips with the outside world. Whoever within Pyongyang can exert control over those state weapons will have every reason to use them to promote their own importance in foreign policy outside of North Korea, and thus bolster their legitimacy within it.

Ten hours before North Korean state media announced Kim Jong Il's death, the Associated Press reported that the U.S. and North Korea had struck a major deal to suspend the country's nuclear program. It's not hard to imagine how either Kim's successor son -- or maybe some other officials, military or otherwise, who saw it as an opportunity to assert greater power -- might have delayed Kim's death announcement long enough to cut this deal and secure good will with the U.S. Or maybe the timing was just a coincidence. But negotiations over the nuclear program will be difficult as long as Pyongyang's leadership is uncertain.

Until North Korea's government can stabilize itself, the country will be more volatile, more susceptible to catastrophic collapse, and likely to behave even more erratically and violently than it has in years past. But the now-deceased Kim knew all this and, in his final year, he appears to have done everything he could to prepare. This is one moment when it might be OK to hope that Kim Jong Il is successful.