In addition to the tight Kim family circle, the North Korean regime is, generally speaking, composed of three elements: the security apparatus, the People’s Army, and the party. All three parts have always fed into the one man—a Kim—in the center. But Kim Jong-un has yet to gain control by placing his supporters in positions of power. More important, he has not had time to learn how to balance and rule an inherently unstable structure. The result is that he is now guided by his aunt, Kim Kyong-Hui, and her husband, Jang Song-Thaek.
He reports that, last year, powerbrokers did exactly what Kim Jong-un told them to do, but what Kim told them to do “was exactly what they told him he should tell them to do.” In short, Kim was in charge in name only. Kim Jong-nam, the ruler’s eldest brother, is on-record saying that “the existing ruling elite” will keep Jong-un “as a symbolic figure.” To attain real power, Kim Jong-un will have to do what his father did: rely on the nation’s strongest institution, the military.
The never-ending intrigue and struggle inside the army is a major factor in making the North so volatile, and troubles in the military undercut the prevailing view among Korea-watchers that Kim Jong-un has consolidated power faster than anticipated.
Bechtol’s main contribution—and it is a critical one—is drawing the line from Pyongyang’s ugly succession politics to its belligerent external behavior. Deadly incidents were executed to gain support among Kim Jong-un’s young, hardline “guardian cadres.” Attacks will probably continue, he argues, because provocations along the Northern Limit Line are not only part of the North’s asymmetric tactics to intimidate Seoul, but they help consolidate the succession, which is clearly Kim’s top priority.
Kim cannot act peacefully because to do so would undermine the beliefs, developed by his grandfather and father, that hold the ruling group together. This explains why North Korea has remained belligerent no matter who resides in the White House. Kim Jong-un is bound by the conventions established by his predecessors, which means that he cannot easily divert North Korea from its unsustainable path. In his final years, Kim Jong-il pursued “defiant” policies, especially in his development of nuclear warheads and proliferation of weapons, and the North will continue this aggressive behavior.Jang Song-thaek, Kim Jong Un, Kim Kyong Hui, north korea