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Kim Jong Un to pave own path as 'supreme leader' of N. Korea

Wednesday, December 28, 2011
By Frank Ching


North Korean leader Kim Jong Il had a checkered relationship with Beijing but one that was solidified in the last year and a half of his life, when he visited China three times in 13 months and sought, and obtained, China's acceptance of his youngest son as his political heir.

Certainly, the Chinese leadership was effusive in its praise of Kim in its condolence message, calling him a “great leader” who had performed “immortal historic feats.” Gone was the rancor of previous years, when Beijing was angered by his sometimes deceitful maneuvers as he attempted to make North Korea a nuclear power.

For now, China's top priority is the maintenance of stability of the Korean peninsula. Thus, Kim Jong Un can be assured of its support as he attempts to consolidate power.

But both China and North Korea know well that their relationship will never return to that of the 1950s, when it was said that they were “as close as lips and teeth.”

Indeed, Jong Un's very name reflects a repudiation of Chinese tradition. In China, it is taboo for a son to share his father's given name. And North Korea banned Chinese characters when they were still used in the South.

Although Kim Jong Il succeeded his father Kim Il Sung in 1994, he did not make a visit to Beijing until 2000.

His father had for decades been able to play China off against the Soviet Union, receiving aid from both, but Jong Il did not have that luxury since the Soviet Union collapsed 20 years ago.

Instead, he played a relatively weak hand extremely well. Certainly, by the time of his death, North Korea had become a nuclear power. And now China's priority is to shore up Kim Jong Un rather than insist that he give up his nuclear weapons.

Discussions with the United States on reviving talks on dismantling North Korea's nuclear program will be put on ice, at least during the mourning period, which could be prolonged.

Even after the revival of high-level contacts, Kim Jong Il was not a frequent guest in Beijing. Indeed, years went by when there were no visits — until they suddenly increased in frequency last year.

In May 2010, he visited Beijing, the first time in four years. Then, three months later, he was in China again. This time, President Hu Jintao flew to Changchun, in northeastern China, to meet him. Something was going on.

That something, in all likelihood, was the request by Kim, who had suffered a stroke in 2008, that China should accept the 27-year-old Jong Un as his political heir.

While China had balked in the 1980s when Kim Il Sung named his son as his successor, this time, the Chinese unhesitatingly agreed to a continuation of the Kim dynasty.

In September 2010, Jong Un was made a four-star general and vice chairman of the Central Military Commission of the Workers Party of Korea. His position as heir was confirmed.

North Korea's top priority is regime survival, which coincides with China's desire to maintain the division of the Korean peninsula. That is a strong common interest.

On Saturday, the official Korean Central News Agency called Kim Jong Un the “supreme leader of the revolutionary armed forces” of the country, making it clear that he had inherited his father's mantle. However, even though it is vital now for Jong Un to obtain the support of the military — and for the generals to co-opt him — it is not clear who is really in charge. But the “supreme leader” is unlikely to accept the role of a puppet. Rather, it is more likely that, given a chance to consolidate his power, Jong Un would want to be his own man and make his own decisions.

A study by Ruediger Frank of the University of Vienna is revealing. He looked at titles used for Kim Jong Il in the official press from 1997 to 2010 and discovered that use of “supreme leader” and “leader” declined over the years and became relatively rare. Instead, Jong Il was increasingly identified as general secretary of the Workers Party, that is, as a civilian leader. Thus, it may well have been the intention of the senior Kim, an idea presumably conveyed to his son, that the party rather than the army should be in charge of the country. North Korea under Kim Jong Un, therefore, may be headed for less, not more, military rule. Unless, of course, the military has other ideas.

Frank.ching@gmail.com Twitter: @FrankChing1

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