Hu Spurs Debate About Succession in North Korea

Publication: China Brief Volume: 5 Issue: 25

China Brief reported on November 8 that Chinese President Hu Jintao met Kim Jong-chol, the second son of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il, during a state visit to Pyongyang in late October. This report generated intense speculation that Kim Jong-il had decided upon a successor. While many analysts agree that the North Korean dynasty’s heir will be one of the Dear Leader’s three sons, analyzing the succession process in the closed communist state has proven exceedingly difficult. A meeting with Hu Jintao, if true, is the latest indication that Kim Jong-chol is indeed North Korea’s heir apparent, and bolsters claims that began emerging in 2002 that Kim Jong-chol had emerged as his father’s favored choice as successor. For China, which seeks to avoid a rapid collapse of the status quo in North Korea, intimations of a succession process are important, but do not reconfigure the current landscape of Sino-DPRK relations.

Enter Hu

Hu Jintao reportedly met Kim Jong-chol at a family dinner hosted by the North Korean leader in honor of the Chinese President’s visit on October 28. The main reason for Hu’s visit to Pyongyang was to mend bilateral relations and secure Kim Jong-il’s commitment to the fifth round of the Six-Party Talks, which began on November 9. Widespread international media attention became focused on succession in the Hermit Kingdom when the German daily Der Spiegel reported on November 21 that Kim Jong-il had selected his son Kim Jong-chol as heir, and that Hu Jintao had met the son at a family banquet after requesting a meeting. Subsequent reports based on that article appeared in the South Korean daily Joongang Ilbo (November 23 and 24) and in wire reports from South Korea’s Yonhap news agency (November 22).

North Korea made no official announcement about such a meeting, or whether Kim Jong-chol had indeed been named successor. The Republic of Korea (ROK)’s Foreign Ministry denied reports that the meeting had occurred, as did sources inside the ROK’s National Intelligence Service (Yonhap, November 22; Joongang Ilbo, November 23). While the Chinese also officially issued denials about the meeting, unofficial sources maintain that Hu and the younger Kim were introduced.

Assuming that reports of the meeting are true, analysts should cautiously embrace its significance. Kim Jong-chol’s presence at a family banquet would not be unexpected, and it remains unknown whether Kim Jong-il’s other sons were in attendance as well. It also remains unknown if Kim Jong-chol accompanied his father during a visit to Beijing in 2003 and, if so, whether he met Hu Jintao at that time [1]. Moreover, uncertainty surrounds the impetus for the meeting: Der Spiegel claimed that Hu requested to meet Kim’s son, while other sources suggest that Hu met the younger Kim as a favor to improve bilateral relations. In any case, Hu’s interfacing with Kim Jong-chol is an important event that, when taken in context with other evidence in the dynastic power struggle, strongly suggests that succession plans are being prepared.

Power Struggle

Intelligence analysts in Tokyo and Seoul had suspected that Kim Jong-il would formally announce his successor on October 10, the auspicious 60th anniversary of the ruling Korean Workers’ Party (Choson Ilbo, September 20). Yet this did not happen, and the decade-long speculation continued over which of Kim’s three sons would ultimately assume power. Kim Jong-chol, 24, has not always been the leading contender.

The eldest son of Kim Jong-il, Kim Jong-nam, 34, is Kim Jong-chol’s half-brother and—until 2001—was widely expected to assume the helm of a third-generation Kim dynasty. Kim Jong-nam reportedly fell out of favor with his father in an odd display of opprobrium when he was detained in Japan while en route to Tokyo Disneyland. He was traveling on a fake Dominican Republic passport and carrying a large sum of cash.

Kim Jong-chol’s younger brother, Kim Jong-un, despite his young age (21) and lack of political involvement, has been watched carefully by South Korean intelligence analysts as a probable successor (Joonang Ilbo, November 23). His stock increased in 2003 with the publication of a memoir by Kim Jong-il’s former chef under the pseudonym Kenji Fujimoto, who claimed that the current leader had deemed Kim Jong-chol as unfit for leadership—making Jong-un the default choice. Kim Jong-un and Kim Jong-chol share the same mother, Koh Young-hee, who died in 2004, presumably from cancer.

An Heir Emerges?

Hu’s meeting with Kim Jong-chol caps a series of recent developments in the North Korean military and political establishments that suggest he has secured the position as chosen heir. Together, much of this anecdotal evidence resembles the process by which Kim Jong-il was introduced as and named successor to his late father, Kim Il-sung.

Beginning in 2002, Kim Jong-chol’s mother, Koh Young-hee, was idolized by the North Korean military as the country’s “respected mother” and “most loyal companion” of Kim Jong-il. These appellations were reminiscent of those that surrounded the late wife of Kim Il-sung. This campaign of promotion is important because it firmly incorporates Koh into the ideological discourse and mythology of the ruling elite that is so important to the cult of personality that surrounds the North Korean leader. It is also noteworthy that such adoration comes from the military, the key source of power in North Korean politics and the support of which was instrumental in solidifying Kim Jong-il’s own base in the 1970s.

Earlier this year, reports emerged that a political education campaign was underway to promote Kim Jong-chol as the country’s chosen successor. Choson Ilbo (September 20) reproduced the findings of a report by a magazine associated with the Japanese daily Asahi Shimbun that cites “numerous sources” as saying that a campaign was underway to introduce Kim’s second son at “all levels of the Stalinist country including workplace exalting.” Joongang Ilbo (November 23) quotes a North Korea specialist, Cheong Seong-chang, as saying in September that portraits of Kim Jong-chol were hung in the Central Committee Building of the Korean Workers’ Party, which is headed by Kim Jong-il. “This is relevant to the North Korean regime’s succession process,” the article quotes Cheong as saying. Importantly, both activities prepare and present Kim Jong-chol as not only a political successor, but also legitimate heir to the discourse and institutions of state ideology.

South Korean press reports suggest that Kim Jong-chol’s entry into bureaucratic politics and public appearance-making came under a pseudonym, Pak Se-bong. A member of the South Korean National Assembly raised the possibility that Kim Jong-chol may be participating in state affairs under an alias in February 2004 (Tong-a Ilbo, February 18, 2004). A similar precedent was set in the early 1970s when a nom-de-plume was used for Kim Jong-il (Joongang Ilbo, November 23). Interestingly, under official designation, Kim Jong-chol was named in April 2004 as Deputy Director of the party’s Propaganda and Agitation Department (Yonhap, November 26, 2004), the same position held by his father in 1969.

Most recently, Joongang Ilbo (November 25), citing diplomatic sources in Beijing with “strong connections in Pyongyang,” reported that North Korea had established a special department inside the Korean Workers’ Party to prepare for Kim Jong-chol’s succession. According to the paper, two bureaus were formed in 2004 under the leadership of Kim Jong-il’s National Defense Commission to promote his second son as heir apparent and educate the chosen successor about party and governance topics. Such organized effort within the ranks of the party bureaucracy indicates that Kim Jong-chol enjoys support within key political institutions, augmenting his backing in the ranks of the military.

Kim Jong-chol’s political beliefs are largely unknown and, at the age of 24, it is unlikely that he will be assigned critical state duties. Kim Jong-il, reported to be in poor health, is 63—one year older than the age at which Kim Il-sung had named him successor—and will most likely avoid a sudden abdication of power in order to preserve regime stability. Kim Jong-il, for his part, was officially designated heir at the age of 32 in 1974, effectively consolidated his political authority by the early 1980s, and assumed power on the death of his father in 1994.

The View from Beijing

Hu’s visit to Pyongyang came at a critical juncture in Sino-DPRK relations, and a meeting with a possible successor to Kim Jong-il—whether as a favor or as a demand—reiterates China’s overriding interest in stability on the Korean Peninsula. Hu’s meeting with a prospective heir does not reflect China’s desire to insinuate itself in the domestic succession politics of North Korea, but provides some measure of the changing and conflicting policy priorities with which Beijing views the regime in Pyongyang. As a family banquet, the setting provided an occasion for Hu and Kim’s son to be introduced without the usual visibility and decorum that would accompany an event of political significance. In this sense, China in no way conferred legitimacy on any prospective successor, nor did it acquiesce to a foregone decision.

Beijing, clearly, is keenly interested in who will assume the top leadership position of its totalitarian neighbor. China has traditionally regarded North Korea as a buffer state separating it from U.S. forces in South Korea and Japan. Yet this conventional stance has been increasingly challenged by an alternative view, most prominently held by Jiang Zemin, that regards North Korea as a growing liability (China Brief, March 8, 2004). North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons offers the possibility of nuclear arms acquisitions in South Korea and Japan, and could precipitate a major war that would reconfigure the balance of power in East Asia. China also provides substantial aid transfers (food and energy) to North Korea, and is concerned with major refugee inflows in the event of a crisis.

In this security environment, China’s strategic interests are best served by staking out a position toward North Korea that is more progressive than the maintenance of the status quo, but short of immediate, dramatic, and revolutionary change. In terms of appropriate policies to support this modest framework, China has prodded North Korea to adopt economic reforms along China’s own model of development and assumed the role of key interlocutor in the Six-Party Talks. China is interested in the DPRK succession issue insofar as it affects the stability of any resulting regime. With the prospect remote for a transfer of leadership in the near-term, however, China’s strategic calculus will be determined by these more immediate priorities.

While Hu’s meeting with Kim Jong-chol provides analysts with an exotic topic about which to speculate, it above all simply reflects the prevailing concerns that drive China’s engagement with North Korea.

Rian Jensen is Associate Editor of China Brief at The Jamestown Foundation.


*All source material translated through FBIS.

1. You Ji, the author of “Assessing Hu’s Visit to North Korea,” in China Brief on November 8 provided this observation.