Is North Korea following the Chinese model?

"The Great Leader", "The Dear Leader" and... "The Brilliant Comrade"?

North Korea has begun the process of political succession in the same idiosyncratic manner it has developed over the decades.

Just as the founder of the state, Kim Il-sung ("The Great Leader"), brought his son Kim Jong-il to the fore 30 years ago, so Kim Jong-il ("The Dear Leader") has now made clear his choice of his youngest son Kim Jong-un (to be known as "The Brilliant Comrade") to be his successor.

The difference may lie in the timing. Kim Jong-il's elevation to the status of heir apparent was in 1980, but it was not until his father died in 1994 that he formally took over power.

It seems unlikely that Kim Jong-un, who is about 27 (such basic personal details can be absurdly difficult to pin down in North Korea), will have to wait that long.

The present leader, who is 68, is widely thought to be a sick man, who may well have suffered a stroke in 2008. There has been speculation that the reason for delaying the present gathering of the ruling Workers' Party for a fortnight, a remarkable and slightly humiliating change for the North Korean leadership, was that he was ill once again.

If Kim Jong-il's health is indeed failing fast, this may explain why an apparently wide-ranging reshuffle of the leadership structure has emerged at this party meeting.

Hand of China

In the space of a few hours his son, Kim Jon-un, who has no military or political experience whatever, became a four-star general, deputy chairman of the Central Military Commission of the Workers' Party, and a member of the Central Committee.

Kim Jong-il and the handover of power

Kim Jong-il file image (27 August 2010)
  • Aged 68, Kim Jong-il is said to be frail
  • Groomed as successor to father, Kim Il-sung, from mid-1970s
  • Given military role and position in Workers' Party secretariat in 1980
  • Finally became leader in 1994 on father's death

To bolster his position, the younger Kim's aunt, Kim Kyong-hui, was also made a general, as well as a member of the politburo.

Her husband, Chang Song-taek, is head of the National Defence Commission, and is usually regarded as the power behind the throne. Most of the seats on the politburo have been empty for years; it is possible they may now slowly be filled.

Behind this may lie a determined effort to assert the control of the Workers' Party over the military, who have traditionally been the leading power in North Korea.

If that is so, it seems likely that the hand of China lies behind much of this. The leadership of the Chinese Communist Party, rather than the foreign ministry, seems to be in charge of China's policy towards North Korea.

There have been clear signs that China would like North Korea to develop in very much the same way as China itself did in the 1970s and 80s, leading to the rampant and highly successful state-controlled capitalism of recent years.

The main architect of this change was Deng Xiaoping. Interestingly, his only formal official position for years was his control over the military committee of China's Communist Party: not very different from the most important of the young Kim Jong-un's new jobs.

China clearly wants reform in North Korea. There have been various signs of its alarm over North Korea's unpredictable military policy.

The thought that its economy might simply implode, perhaps unleashing a wave of millions of refugees across North Korea's borders, is deeply disturbing to the Chinese leadership.

And so the signs are that China is prodding North Korea down the path it took itself: control of the military by the Communist Party, and a gradual opening up of the economy to market forces.

To a very small extent, this already seems to be happening. People are being allowed to sell their produce openly in the streets, and at night the police no longer break up the illegal markets held in the darkened streets, as they did until recently.

It may not sound much, but it is very much the way the process began in China, a little over 30 years ago.

Interest in basketball

And in the odd politics of the Kim family, distinctly absurd to Western eyes, it may make sense to pass over Kim Jong-il's relatives and his two elder sons and hand on the succession to his youngest, who was educated in Switzerland.

This gives him first-hand experience of life in a market economy; something no other close member of the clan can boast.

If fate is kind to Kim Jong-il, he will have some years yet to ease his son into the job of running the country.

If not, then things could well become much more worrying.

And it would probably not be difficult to find a number of political figures who might feel they had a better right to run the country than a little known ex-schoolboy from Switzerland with an interest in basketball.

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