“The North Korean Succession”: An Introduction

By | December 22, 2011 | No Comments

Charles Kraus is a veteran of the North Korean International Documentation Project, a frequently published peer-reviewed historian of the PRC borderlands in the 1950s, and is presently working for the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C.  Kraus is also an Affiliate Scholar for SinoNK.com. In the following introduction to “The North Korean Succession,” a CIA assessment of the Kim Il-song/Kim Jong-il duo in 1978, Charles Kraus describes how he acquired the document and its relevance today.  — Ed. 

“The North Korean Succession”: An Introduction

by Charles Kraus

In summer 2008, I was navigating through the declassified documents database known as CREST (CIA Records Research Tool) at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland, when I discovered the document“The North Korean Succession.” Busy with other projects, I had kept this file hidden near the bottom of my personal archives until I learned of Kim Jong Il’s death several days ago.

The report is a summary overview of what the Central Intelligence Agency knew about Kim Jong Il in 1978 and, even more so, his potential to succeed Kim Il Sung.  While certain assessments are gratuitous — such as the periodic reminders to the reader that conclusions may be tentative “because Pyongyang still rules over one of the most tightly closed societies in the world” — others are rather valuable.   Gems like “Nepotism is not a new phenomenon in North Korea” proliferate.  The authors note their appreciation for the difficulty of succession in any communist state, stating that “the precedent-setting father-son scheme complicates matters further still.”  The role of rumors from South Korea (Kim Jong Il was falsely said to have lost control of all of his body functions in 1977) and the now-familiar role of indirect communication in North Korea (referring to the successor as “the Party Center” or through songs) are both discussed profitably.

The report therefore succeeds at raising several interesting questions and answers which, I think, are more valuable today than they were in 1978. Inevitably, after reading the report, we cannot help but compare Kim Jong Il in 1978 to Kim Jong Un in 2011.

The authors of the report concluded that Kim Jong Il was much more likely to become and remain successor if his father, Kim Il Sung, could survive “for another five or 10 years,” adding that “the early removal of Kim Il-song…would measurably increase the likelihood of a succession struggle, possibly accompanied by violence.” Kim Jong Il had the benefit of time, some twenty years, while today Kim Jung Un has been rushed to thrones of North Korean power after only two or three years of preparation. By the same token, the CIA report’s emphasis on the possibility of inter-generational conflict among the Kims due to a perceived “lame-duck status” of the father is now clearly not among the many  problems with which Kim Jong Eun must deal.

What affect the speed and character of the succession may have upon Kim Jong Un’s leadership and the future of the North Korean state is unclear, but the contrasts between Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un, as a reading of this report suggests, are unmistakable.

Two final notes regarding powerful difference between then and now: First, the role of internal rivals was far simpler in the era of Kim Il Song.  “There are no obvious challengers to Kim Chong-il,” the 1978 report notes, offering up only “party veteran Kim Il” as a man who has “anything approaching independent status, and his health is poor.”  As Andrei Lankov has shown persuasively in his text Crisis in North Korea, Kim Il Song had done a thorough job of purging the Korean Workers’ Party, and Kim’s son benefitted handsomely — perhaps overly so — from this groundwork.  By contrast, as this new NYT piece by Choe Sang-Hun makes abundantly clear, Kim Jong Eun is surrounded immediately by rivals.

The second main difference between 1978 and today, illumated by its absence in the report, is the role (of course) of China.  Kim Il, the one man who could have usurped Kim Jong-il’s rise in the late 1970s, had a long background of friendly deals with the Chinese, but he was far from a Chinese puppet or a cat’s paw for Beijing.  (Kim Il’s work in Manchuria, and the entire question of Chinese influence in North Korea in the late 1940s, is something I discuss at length in a book manuscript which Cathcart and I are presently completing).  The role of China was negligible in the succession away from Kim Il Song, but today, Kim Jong-eun’s relationship with Beijing seems to be the object of rather more obsession among Western and South Korean analysts.  Clearly the interest in Chinese leverage in Pyongyang reflects some important historical developments that give the Kim Jong-Eun succession a unique dynamic: In 1978, China was still very much wrapped up in its own internal power struggles (the parallels of which in the current DPRK context are properly the topic of another essay), but today, the PRC has cleaned its house and is reasserting itself in East Asia.  Perhaps, from the American point of view today, as China backs the next generation of Kim Il Song’s offspring, analyzing matters in North Korea back in 1978 appears to be an almost enviable task.

Read the Document in Full: “The North Korean Succession,” October 1978.

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