In the News – Kim Jong-il Son Cleared as Top Military Commander
Published: December 24, 2011
SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea broadcast television footage on Sunday of the top military brass flanking the country’s young new leader, Kim Jong-un, as they paid their respects to Mr. Kim’s father, who died of heart attack a week ago, and vowed their allegiance to his chosen successor.
Among the officials there was Jang Song-taek, Mr. Kim’s uncle and a vice chairman of the powerful National Defense Commission, whose role as the young successor’s caretaker has been magnified during the transition. Mr. Jang, 65, in what was said to be his first public appearance in a military uniform on state television, wore a general’s insignia.
On Saturday, the generals visited the Kumsusan mausoleum, where the senior Mr. Kim lay in a glass coffin. North Korea’s state-run media also published an entreaty to Kim Jong-un the same day to become “supreme commander” of the military. That official plea, along with the television footage of the generals and Mr. Jang’s appearance in a military uniform, signal that the military is spearheading Mr. Kim’s succession.
The military’s support is considered crucial if Mr. Kim is to consolidate control after his father’s death, and a commentary by Rodong Sinmun — the official newspaper of the ruling Workers’ Party and the primary outlet of the government’s policy statements — is part of the pattern set when Kim Jong-il took power: Entreaties are made, and the leader graciously accepts.
The commentary was titled “Our Supreme Commander,” and it called the son, who is believed to be in his late 20s, “our heart.”
“We urge Comrade Kim Jong-un to embrace the people’s call on him to become our supreme commander,” the commentary said. “We will complete the great task of our songun revolution by upholding Comrade Kim Jong-un as our supreme commander, our general.”
The songun, or “military first,” revolution refers to Kim Jong-il’s policy of focusing resources on the Korean People’s Army and using it to police the country and dictate foreign policy, often by raising tensions with other countries. The policy, first adopted amid the famine of the 1990s, spurred the building of nuclear weapons and gave the military and its leaders a more prominent place in the government and in North Korean society.
The state-run media’s call for Kim Jong-un to lead the military suggests that, at least for now, he is on pace to take full control of the country. Analysts outside North Korea had long predicted that a regent might rule while Kim Jong-un gained more experience. While he could still be subject to power plays by influential leaders, it appears for now that he will not have to share control publicly.
South Korea and the United States have been worried that a power struggle could lead the North to lash out with some type of military strike to build the new leader’s military credentials. But the announcement that Kim Jong-un will continue his father’s military-first policy raises the same worry.
Analysts have already suggested that he was involved in the planning of two attacks on the South in 2010: the sinking of a warship and the shelling of an island. Fifty South Koreans died in the two attacks. North Korea has denied responsibility for the sinking.
On Sunday, striking a typically strident posture, North Korea reiterated that if South Korea blocked private delegations from visiting Pyongyang for Mr. Kim’s funeral on Wednesday, there would be “unimaginably disastrous consequences” on relations between the two Koreas.
The statement, carried by the official Korean Central News Agency, was issued in the name of the Korean Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland, the agency in the North that is in charge of relations with the South. South Korea has said it would allow a small number of South Korean families with close political and economic ties to North Korea to attend the ceremony..
Kim Jong-il himself assumed the top military post 20 years ago on Saturday. If the new leadership in the capital, Pyongyang, follows the past practice, the newspaper commentary will be followed in the weeks ahead by a flood of similar appeals from various groups and organizations. Then the party’s Central Committee will convene to declare the son as supreme commander.
Supreme commander is one of several posts, including general secretary of the party, that Kim Jong-il held before the North announced that he died of a heart attack on Monday. Analysts said the move by the son — or by whoever might be choreographing his succession — to first be installed as head of the military reflected the importance of its allegiance.
Kim Jong-il, who suffered a stroke in 2008, pulled Kim Jong-un, his third son, out of obscurity in 2009 and began grooming him to be the country’s next leader. Two of the three titles he gave his son were military-related: the son became a four-star general and a vice chairman of the party’s Central Military Commission. The son was also appointed to the party’s Central Committee.
The North Korean news media have since steadily built the son’s image as a “young commander.” (He did attend the country’s top military school, but there is no indication that he served as a soldier.)
The “chuck-chuck-chuck” refrains of “Footsteps,” a widespread propaganda song dedicated to Kim Jong-un, evokes the sound of the goose-stepping soldiers. And he was shown inspecting military parades and barracks along with this father.
In comparison, when Kim Jong-il himself was cementing his grip on power, he relied on the party as the central tool of control and was referred to as the “party center.”
Since Kim Jong-il’s death was announced, the North Korean news media have stressed that his son will continue his father’s songun policy. In a separate editorial on Saturday, Rodong Sinmun called the military “the vanguard” of “upholding the leadership of Comrade Kim Jong-un.”
The Korean People’s Army is among the world’s largest, with 1.1 million troops on active duty in a country with a population of 23 million. Soldiers serve 10 years in the military, which runs its own factories and trading arms, and being in the military is a privilege reserved for those considered loyal to the leadership.
Kim Jong-il kept his top military brass subjugated, according to analysts who study the North’s hierarchy; they say political officers sent from the party monitored every move of a general’s daily life. Whether Kim Jong-il’s son has inherited his cunning and penchant for control remains a question hotly debated in the region.
The military is not the only group of elites that Kim Jong-un must keep in line. On Saturday, the North Korean news media reported that the young Mr. Kim released truckloads of fish to Pyongyang residents, presenting them as a gift from his deceased father. In the centrally controlled country, the only families who can live in the capital are those deemed particularly trustworthy, including families of party members and military officers.
The reports Saturday carried photos of housewives lining up to receive rations of herring and pollock at state-run grocery stores.
Since the announcement of Kim Jong-il’s death, large crowds of people in the capital have poured out into chilly public plazas, wailing and bowing before his photographs.