Justifying Hereditary Succession in North Korea

By | March 09, 2014 | No Comments

Kim Jong-un gives direction in a restaurant at Masik Pass Ski Resort, circa November 2013. Image via Chosun Central TV.

Kim Jong-un gives direction in a restaurant at Masik Pass Ski Resort, circa November 2013. | Image: Chosun Central TV.

In a fascinating February public appearance at which he read aloud from one of our own Sino-NK translations, US National Security Council Korea Director Sydney Seiler stated that Kim Jong-un’s succession was “an evolutionary process” that in many ways was still not complete.

With the explosive and extensive death sentence on Jang Song-taek, North Korean leaders revealed to the world that there was still a great deal of internal dispute occurring over the method and direction of the succession of power to Kim Jong-un.  Our colleagues at New Focus International interpret these events as a serious weakening of Kimist power and legitimacy. With Jang’s death, China, the power which had hailed the hereditary succession in December 2011 in spite of historical doubts, was openly upset. And within North Korea in the aftermath of the purge, North Korean citizens were expected to hail with great emotion what amounted to a confirmation of the succession which, in the regime’s prior narrative, had already been settled at least back in 2009.

Answering questions about the succession requires that we examine and re-examine what North Korean leaders and propagandists have said, and are still saying, about it. Fortunately, for a state that seems to often catch the world off-guard, North Korea produces a great deal more open-source data than is often acknowledged. As we endeavor to demonstrate at Sino-NK, output by and about North Korea in Chinese and Korean languages represents the richest trove, but sometimes even substantial texts in English from Pyongyang go completely unnoticed. And sometimes they take a bit of time to emerge.

One such text–a speech by Kim Jong-un on the subject of education–was posted on the website of the Association for the Study of Songun Policy (UK) on October 9, 2013. Covering an event which had occurred a year prior, it runs about 6,000 words in length, just shy of 100 paragraphs. The speech is repetitive and largely predictable, but among all the bromides a handful of notable themes and statements emerge.

As speculation continues over the succession and its impact on the path forward for North Korea, it is important to note that the North Koreans themselves are rather aware that these moves do not take place wholly in a vacuum. When Kim Jong-un describes his desire to be “in line with the Party’s intention and the requirements of the developing revolution” – he admits, as does DPRK writing generally, that the international situation has changed. “Color revolutions” have occurred. Syria is not explicitly at war in North Korea’s official media, but there is knowledge regularly distributed via state media of Libya, Afghanistan and Iraq. Even China’s betrayal (by warming up to Park Geun-hye and the US) is becoming increasingly obvious to DPRK citizens and consumers of both state and outside media sources. By acknowledging the changed global situation, Kim is necessarily moving to catch up with reality, not to redefine it.

The North Korean leadership is hardly in denial about trends external to the DPRK. But their response to these changes has appeared to very much be a “doubling down” on conservative principles and norms.  Text like the following, from Kim Jong-un’s October 2012 speech, sends just such a message:

By intensifying education in faith and obligation in various forms and by various methods as suited to the psychological features of the students by age, the revolutionary schools should ensure that all of them would absolutely trust and follow only the Party and the leader that have brought them up, and become persons strong in faith and the sense of obligation who will hold fast to the red flag of the revolution, the flag of the glorious Party, even though they have to abandon their lives[…]

Having implanted in the minds of the students of Mangyongdae Revolutionary School the faith with which to trust and follow only the leader while studying with them.

If conservative principles are held out as key, the notion of the importance of youth ought to be inherently diminished. What is the purpose of having a younger generation if that generation’s role is merely to repeat what has gone before? But in the DPRK, this discourse is neatly inverted, or the circle is squared.

How? By emphasizing the importance of youth of the Kims themselves, past, present, and future, within the framework of the history of Kimist leadership.

Kim Jong-un is increasingly being portrayed as a fatherly leader, but his own youth is being put into play regularly as a means of symbolically capturing a certain North Korean vitality–making a virtue of necessity, as it were. Moreover, the regular eulogies and granular discussion of Kim Jong-il’s youth instructor are also ubiquitous, and held up absolutely vital as precedent for the current Kim, whose only proper experience appears to be within the walls of various academies.

By hammering away repeatedly at the genius inherent in Kim Jong-il’s speeches, studies, and field activities prior to 1974 (when Kim Jong-il was 32, about the same as as Kim Jong-un today), the idea becomes obvious: The Kim family has always been preternatural in its leadership exploits, and the Kim Jong-il succession had already been a fait accompli in 1960when Kim Jong-il was 18 years old.

Jang Jin-sung recently made a rather cryptic comment about how the emphasis in Kim Jong-un propaganda on “the Paektu line” was in some ways overshadowing the previous emphasis on “the anti-Japanese line.” We might assume he means that the Kims are in fact even more jealous than we might have imagined, and want to further aggregate personal prestige and charisma out of the anti-Japanese struggle in the 1930s. The problem with this line of thinking, of course, is that Kim Il-sung himself, with the help of his son, was already doing precisely this (and rather intensely) in 1968, culling out competing nationalistic narratives and undercutting his old anti-Japanese colleagues.

But while Kim Jong-il could accomplish much of this work on behalf of his father, savaging those who participated in the anti-Japanese struggle as relatively selfish, Kim Jong-un has no young son sycophantic or able enough to praise his Paektu lineage. So he has to do it himself.

Again from the October 2012 speech, Kim Jong-un has to endorse his own succession and, referring to himself in the third person, note the need for students to be loyal to him personally:

 … the schools should train their students to be the reliable backbone who would stoutly carry forward the lifeline, the bloodline, of our revolution, to be the vanguard fighters who would make breakthroughs in the vanguard of the general onward march for achieving final victory arm in arm and shoulder to shoulder with the Supreme Commander.


 I pay the noblest tribute to the great persons of Mt. Paektu, who had the schools built in the difficult and arduous days of building a new country and brought up the sons and daughters of revolutionary martyrs over the past more than half a century to be the pillars of the country so that they would carry forward the lifeline, the bloodline, of the Songun revolution.


In the effort to build a powerful, prosperous Paektusan nation on this land to be reunified true to the wishes of the great generalissimos, Mangyongdae Revolutionary School and Kang Pan Sok Revolutionary School, the “pedigree farms” for training the backbone of the Songun revolution, have an important responsibility and task to perform.

There is much that could be said about Kim Jong-un’s own publicly expressed attitude toward the succession process in North Korea. It has been absolutely conservative, to the point that it is hard at this point to imagine that Kim Jong-un has any plan other than to stabilize his own power base, follow the family playbook, and pass on the reins of power to his own son (assuming such a child exists, and is not snuffed out by rivals) in the 2060s.

More to the present point, Kim Jong-un also sends a clear message to the educational and “youth work” bureaucracy that it should carry on more or less without fundamental change and that he is not a threat to it.

A few final points:

Kim Jong-un fires a warning shot about trust in his speech, more or less conveying the equivalent of “simply because your parents were loyal, does not mean that I trust you.” Fortunately he is able to quote his grandfather here:

It is not that the children of a revolutionary grow up to be revolutionaries simply because they have inherited the lineage of their parent. As the great generalissimos said, man’s blood may be inherited, but not his ideology.

Read this backwards, if you will, as another warning to those within the Kim family itself who may have assumed they were untouchable, by marriage or otherwise.

Kim Jong-un thus becomes the curator of the North Korean revolution, and students and cadre in the DPRK are presumably inclined to imagine that the young man has spent years in the detailed study and immersion in its arcana. When not actively trying to destroy this idea by cavorting with Dennis Rodman, Kim Jong-un at least pays lip service to it:

The revolutionary schools should intensify education through revolutionary relics. Loyalty is given fuller play not through words but in the course of fully understanding the immortal revolutionary history in which the greatness of the Party and the leader is contained in a comprehensive way.

Kim Jong-un’s alleged trips to Manchuria thus take on more significance in the narrative of succession. Kim Jong-un’s intuitive and actual understanding of the anti-Japanese legacy and the meaning of Kim Il-sung’s life is, one might say, vital to his conservation of the Kimist charisma and the idea of his own exclusive domain over it. What this also does is to serve as a historical weapon which can be used to undercut any move toward more collective 0r non-Kim leadership in the event of a real or perceived challenge. The massive upswing in “Paektu” narratives in the immediate aftermath of the execution of Jang Song-taek would appear to confirm as much.

Kim Jong-un’s speech is, admittedly, at times an awful read. In a speech on education, it takes the young man about 40 minutes of overblown and self-aggrandizing Kimism to get around to mentioning the need for more math and science education, and this only after another digression into how much his grandmother Kim Jong-suk and the North Korean people in 1946 were longing for a statues of their young leader–another unsubtle rock on the cairn justifying the presence of a 30-year old as head of state.

But paying attention to such things matter because if the DPRK is going to change, absent regime change, it is going to change within the syntax of Kimist revolution, not divorced from it. There may be no abrupt break. Thus we need to delve into how they actually speak, and what they speak about; to do, in other words,  precisely what Bruce Bennett has no interest in doing, and which Rudiger Frank encourages us to do.

Source: Kim Jong-un, “The Sons and Daughters of Revolutionary Martyrs Should Become the Reliable Backbone of the Songun Revolution Who Would Stoutly Carry Forward the Lineage of Mangyongdae, the Lineage of Paektu (October 12, 2012),” Association for the Study of Songun Politics UK website, October 2013.


This piece is published as part of a project documenting the cultural and political strategies used by the DPRK government to promote its policy agenda and create strategic discord abroad. This research is supported by an Academy of Korean Studies Grant (AKS-2013- R-11).

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  1. The hagiography is indeed a tough field to plough, and in my opinion a complete waste of time. The successor Kims are figureheads merely; they represent Kim Il Sung’s unfinished legacy — the liberation of the Korean peninsula from foreign forces and the independence of the Korean people for the first time in over 1,000 years. That, incidentally is why KIS is “eternal president.” A similar role was played by Chiang Jing-guo when his father Chiang Kai-shek died leaving an unfinished legacy — the recovery of Chinese territory (all of it, including the Republic of Mongolia and Tibet) from the Red Bandits. When the US abandoned the ROC and the recovery of mainland became impracticable no more Chiangs were needed as symbols.

  2. Very interesting point about both “successor Kims” — Kim Jong-un and Kim Jong-il — being no more or less fraudulent or unhampered by originality than one another. They are really puffing up Kim Jong-il’s legacy as having “laid the foundation for prosperity” but everyone seems to also know that if Kim Jong-un can just get material standards back to where they were widely speaking in the 1960s, that may be good enough. The Taiwan parallel is also interesting, definitely one to watch. Thanks for the insights.

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