The official version for the delay in a key conference – likely to decide the future leadership of North Korea - of the ruling Workers Party, is that widespread and serious flooding has forced a postponement. But as ever with North Korea and the country’s ailing ruler, Kim Jong Il, there is rather more to all of this than first meets the eye. True, flooding – sadly a regular feature of North Korean life – has been very bad, so bad in fact that South Korea has temporarily suspended all restrictions and sent food aid to the stricken North. But the real reason for the delay – the conference was supposed to be taking place around now – seems more likely to be that Kim Jong Il is not fit or capable enough to perform at it, or as has been hinted at darkly in some sections of the Japanese and South Korean media, there is a ‘factional discord’ within the party over the much heralded anointing of Kim Jong Il’s third Son and likely successor, Kim Jong-un by giving him a pivotal position within the party. There have been reports that Kim Jong Il’s formidable brother in law, and Central Committee member, Chang Song-taek, is deeply unhappy at the possible succession, and is busy throwing a spanner in the works. In other circumstances, Chang Song-taek might expect to be purged, but Kim Jong Il is reputed to regard him with a mixture of awe and fear.
The North’s futuristic capital Pyongyang has been on ‘Special Alert’ for at least a fortnight now, with one returning traveller reporting even more evidence of orchestrated, mass demonstrations and the preponderance of the insignia of the ruling party. And since the ruling party’s conference is not set up in order for there to be a discussion, but to set in concrete what has already been decided, its postponement, according to many North Korea watchers, is highly unusual. The last time such a meeting took place was in 1980, when a younger Kim Jong Il was elevated to a key position, as his father, the ‘Great Leader’ Kim Il Sung was himself ailing. And the fact that it is the Workers Party, or Communist Party, that is playing centre stage is also significant, since in recent years the armed forces have been calling the shots with their ‘Military First’ policy – a policy that ensured that the armed forces were the first priority for Government largesse.
Not a great deal is known about Kim Jong Il’s third son, except that he studied in Berne, Switzerland and is either 27 or 28 years old. While in Switzerland, Kim Jong- un was given a pseudonym, and his fellow pupils informed that he was “the son of a North Korean diplomat”. He is sometime referred to as “Young General” or “Brilliant Comrade” in Government propaganda, although even the North’s legendary propagandists will have a hard time trying to construct an epic story line to rival that of his father, or even more , that of the late Kim Il Sung. To date the only known pictures of the man are of him aged twelve years old. Again there have been reports that he accompanied his father on one of his two recent visits to China, which if true would simply have confirmed the succession is on track – but since few actually know what he looks like, the story is difficult to verify.
Into this swirling maelstrom of intrigue should also be thrown the increasingly erratic and unpredictable behaviour of Kim Jong Il. From the botched currency reforms to the sinking of the South Korean military vessel, the Cheonan, and more recent bellicosity over South Korean and US military exercises, it has become increasingly difficult to second guess what is really going on in the mind of the head of the World’s only Marxist Leninist dynasty. In recent days, perhaps faced by the enormity of the approaching food shortages, the North has offered ‘military talks’ with the South over border issues. But again, Kim Jong Il’s two recent visits to China may also have played a part in this change. Because, despite the continuing economic decline, caused in part by UN sanctions, the North Korean regime now finds itself in a comparatively secure position as it consider re-shuffling its aged and ailing leadership.
For a start South Korea’s extraordinary charm offensive aimed at detaching China from its historic support for the North appears to have misfired. South Korea’s President Lee Myung-bak famously broke with his predecessor’s ‘Sunshine’ policy of engagement, and took a much harder line towards Pyongyang. Coupled with tougher sanctions and a cessation of much of the aid to the North, the South Korean Government, has in recent months offered an extraordinary deal to the Chinese. In return for China supporting moves to further isolate the North at the United Nations, the South let it be known that it was prepared to consider negotiating a free trade agreement with China as well as recognising China’s claims over both Taiwan and Tibet. But a relationship between China and North Korea that has in the past between compared “as that between lips and teeth”, not only seems to be holding up – it has got stronger. The pictures and statements that flowed from both Preident Hu Jintao and Kim Jong Il certainly convey the impression that China will lend her support to the North’s succession plan.
Recent visitors have noticed that there are more Chinese goods on sale in the North’s notoriously Spartan shops, while the usually empty hotels in mountain resorts to the North of the capital now have more than their fair share of Chinese tourists. Yet this trickle of trade and people cannot explain the bonds that bind the two countries together, especially since China stands to gain far more economically by having strong ties with South Korea. One on level, the North still provides a valuable buffer, and on another a useful piece of real estate with which to trade on the international stage – because China likes to believe that it has influence over whether the North is prepared to negotiate over its nuclear programme or doesn’t. But there may well be another reason, and at its basest level, it is that China feels more comfortable and supportive of North Korean autocracy than it does with South Korean democracy.
Not that President Lee Myung-bak of South Korea is leaving anything to chance. While claims of North Korea’s demise have always proved premature in the past, a possible leap from 68 year old Kim Jong IL to 27 year old Kim Jong- un throws up as many possibilities, as it does real problems. The South Korean President has recently instituted a special ‘Re-unification Tax’, having been severely rattled by findings from the Federation of Korean Industries that put a current day price on re-unification of the two countries at a cool $3 trillion US dollars.
And that might only be part of the price to pay, should the North’s succession end up getting very messy or falling apart.