North Korea conducted a missile test on Monday after the announcement of Kim Jong Il’s death. This test may have larger implications in the hereditary transition currently going on in North Korea. There are two intertwined factors that affect the transition of power that will inevitably happen now that Kim Jong Il has died. Songun and Juche are the national mottos of North Korea. Songun, loosely translated, means “Military first”. North Korea has long held the military as the primary benefactor and protector of the state. In their national narrative, the military is the only thing that prevents aggressive foreign powers from conquering the country. Juche is the other side of this narrative. “Self Reliance” is more than a socialist slogan, it is a framework that supports the actions of the state. Juche creates a siege mentality that pits North Korea against the rest of the world. Through strict control of the national media, North Koreans believe that they enjoy the highest standard of living in the world, and that other countries will try to take that wealth away from them if they are allowed to. It’s immaterial that North Korea is fundamentally dependent on foreign aid to sustain itself. Without an external threat, there is no basis for the government to claim that the authoritarian measures they use to control their population are needed.
Juche and Songun combine to place the military at the forefront of the nation. The difficulty of this emphasis is that an overly strong military can become a threat to the stability of the political infrastructure. In pre war Russia, Stalin saw the military as a threat to his power base, and purged most of the officer core. This gutting made the state vulnerable to an invasion by Germany during Operation Barbarosa. North Korea stands at a unique place in history right now. The emphasis on military strength is necessary to maintain the national narrative, but puts the politicians in a precarious position by creating rivals for power. Since Kim Jong Il waited too long to begin grooming his successor, his death has created a power vacuum within the country. Kim Jong Il himself was groomed for more than a decade before the death of Kim Il Sung in 1994. Kim Jong Un has only had a few short years to gather power and prepare for this transition. As a relative newcomer to the national political stage, he may not be able consolidate power before other forces within the country seize it. This power grab will not take the form of a direct coup, so it may not be very visible to outside observers. Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il are not simply political leaders in north Korea. Nor are they secular saints as Stalin and Lenin were in the Soviet Union. North Korea combines the traditional socialist deification with a cult of personality. The Kims are not only the founders of the state, they are the foundation of the state. North Korea as an entity cannot exist without the hereditary line started by Kim Il Sung. The educational system in North Korea has propagated this mythos to the point that Kim Jong Un’s titular position is almost unassailable. That does not mean that real power will rest with him when the dust settles.
Forces in the military and the central party may see Kim Jong Il’s death as an opportunity to seize power from Kim Jong Un. In order to do this, they must exercise power in overt ways that do not threaten the state as a whole. In places where the military senses that they have the authority and the will to conduct aggressive maneuvers, they may become aggressive towards their neighbors in an effort to influence the hereditary transition. When the military independently exercises power, it is a direct provocation to the political establishment. The missile test on the east coast of the country may have more to do with gaining influence in PyongYang than it does in keeping neighboring countries at bay. Larger exercises in power, like the nuclear tests, come from the established political structure and are meant to act as threats against the external forces that support the Juche and Songun slogans. Missile tests and isolated artillery barrages may be the means that the military uses to suppress opposition in the capital as government power settles into a new form. In order to shape the outcome of the transition, the military may embark on a series of small international provocations, like this missile test.
It’s difficult to understand what the internal alliances are between the military and the central party. They may be acting independently or in unison to create a new governing force in the country. Regardless of which forces are collaborating to control North Korea, it is likely that a period of instability on the peninsula will be the inevitable result. Since Kim Jong Un will be the new head of state, it is the power behind that office that will determine the direction that North Korea takes in the future. As an inexperienced political figure, Kim Jong Un is most likely ill prepared to walk the fine line between the military and political forces in the country. If he decides to blunt the power of the military, it will diminish the national narrative and the power of the central identity of the country. If he decides to conduct a political purge, he will empower the military in a way that will eventually threaten his ability to maintain control as a dictator. The task for Kim Jong Un is to use the political party and the military as opposing forces that allow him to keep power in his office. The alternative is to become a puppet to a larger force, which will only be decided after a prolonged struggle between the two fundamental organizations that keep the country from collapsing.
For western governments, there is little that they can do to influence which way the balance of power shifts in the coming year. China is in the best position to guide the power transition as the primary supporter and benefactor of North Korea. It is in their interest to maintain stability between the Koreas since China is the initial destination for almost all defectors escaping the North. A humanitarian disaster caused by a million refugees does not work within their own national narrative, and they will most likely go to great lengths to avoid it. As a pragmatic course of action, they may back which ever force gains power within North Korea. China faces the same difficult balancing act that Kim Jong Un does, though. If one power gains too much influence over the course of the country, it may lead to more aggressive acts towards North Korea’s neighbors. It’s not likely that China would be the target of an independent action by the military, but anything that causes instability in the country would inevitably spill over into China. The stark nature of North Korean politics, which sees the entire world as potential enemies, does not have the flexibility to deal with the nuanced balance of power that would be required to maintain the state in its current form. In most countries, this would lead to a military coup or a civil war. In the insular environment of North Korea, that conflict will be played out against its neighbors instead of internally. As the living embodiment of the state, Kim Jong Un should be immune to overt challenges to his position. That status will not protect him against other forces in the country that will seek to diminish his power to the point of becoming a puppet leader.