North Korea After Kim Jong-Il

Although the North Korean leader Kim Jong-il named his youngest son, Jong-un, to succeed him more than a year ago, the direction of the successor regime has become much clearer in recent days with the announcement that Jong-un is one of six new generals and the newly-minted deputy chairman of the Central Military Commission of the ruling Worker's Party.

Jong-un also has been given the political title of politburo member. Kim Jong-il, the chairman of the central military commission, appears to be making an effort to clean the house by moving out some of the military leaders to make way for the son. These moves are regarded as a stepping stone for his replacement in the not-distant future.

In addition, Kim has supplemented family control over the regime by adding his sister, Kim Kyong-hui, director of the Light Industry Department, as a general-cum-politburo member. In addition to winnowing out potential trouble-makers with her appointment, Kyong-hui, who is known as a control freak, is widely expected to play a pivotal role in the new leadership structure. The 68-year-old Kim, who is thought to be ailing, virtually terminated a previous leadership structure plan that had dragged on more than a year.

Any idea that the 28-year-old Jong-un is going to lighten up the country appears to be wishful thinking. Although he reportedly attended an English-language school in Berne, Switzerland and is fluent in English and knows at least some German, Korea-watchers say he is likely to remain his father's son as a ruler, not an especially attractive prospect. He remains a public mystery. Until recently, only one confirmed photo of him had ever been made public, and that was taken when he was about 11. Finally an official photo was released on Sept. 30.

(There is only speculation on what led Kim Jong-il to name Jong-un his successor. The eldest son, Jong-nam, who had been considered the favorite, was reportedly dropped after he was caught trying to enter Japan on a fake passport to visit Tokyo Disneyland. Reportedly the middle son, Jong-chol, is too much of a pantywaist. But that version is from a 2003 memoir by Jong-il's Japanese sushi chef.)

The likely direction of the regime, now about to go into its third generation, can be determined by the fact that Jong-un was made a four-star general. In the eyes of Western North Korea watchers, it must look awkward to see a twenty-something with no military background assuming the fourth-highest position in terms of unique North Korean military hierarchy. This is not novel, however. Jong-un is following the speedy ascension path climbed by his father with the sudden death from heart failure of Kim Il-sung, the so-called Great Leader, who died in 1994, when Jong-il was 53.

After Il-sung's death, Jong-il took over as supreme commander of the People's Army and chairman of the National Defense Commission. Jong-il firmly believes that his power derives from the military, emphasizing that "defense preparedness precedes any other national goal."

Unlike his father, whose leadership style mainly focused upon the powerful Worker's Party, Kim Jong-il has geared up for a strengthened military in the name of Kangsung Taeguk ("a strong and prosperous state") and later, of Seongun ("military first") politics. There is thus little doubt that the military will play a leading role in maintaining the survival of the regime during the reign of the "Young General," a sobriquet for Jong-un.

That said, the military can be expected to call the shots among the bureaucracy, guiding the inexperienced Jong-un to see the world in militarily confrontational terms.

In the meantime, the regime is thoroughly marinated in a corrupt inner-circle culture. Key posts are filled with Kim's hand-picked cronies and relatives, such as Jang Song-taek, the husband of Mrs. Kim and a vice chairman of the National Defense Commission. The hard-bitten aides are literally the clubbiest in the communist country, mainly working behind the scenes to conjure up all kinds of state affairs, while singing praises for "Our style socialism."

North Korea is not on a path toward self-destruction, all illusions to the contrary. It is in line with tradition. The Confucian Choson Dynasty, which emphasized a similar feudalistic order, survived for more than 500 years before being dismantled by imperialistic Japanese rule. It too had a long record of kings younger than the not-yet-known Kim Jong-un. After consolidating Jong-un's status both in the military and the party, Kim Jong-il would likely put on a debutant ball for his son in 2012, the designated year for achieving the "strong and prosperous state." But the complete success of the ongoing power transition should substantially demand not only a politico- economic stability but a conciliatory diplomacy. So it is no wonder that the North desires to deal with the US directly to secure its political and national security affairs, while limiting the role of South Korea to mere economic assistance.

Any dealings with the regime will require intelligence and courage. US President Barack Obama has yet to accomplish what so many South Koreans wish for him to do. To encourage a newly emerging regime to comply with peaceful dismantlement of its troubled nuclear weapons program, Obama would do well to accept Pyongyang's proposal for direct, bilateral negotiations, given the North's seasoned negotiators – Kang Sok-ju and Kim Kye-gwan – who have so far struggled to debate with their US counterparts in the six-party nuclear talks, which were postponed in the wake of North Korea's detonation of a nuclear device in 2009.

The upshot is that Washington's wait-and-see attitude along with that of the conservative Lee Myung-bak government of South Korea will not put an end to the hostile regime's nuclear ambitions. North Korea's political affairs look set to move along with a depressing continuity, Swiss-educated scion and fan of former basketball star Michael Jordan or no.

Lee Byong-Chul is a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Peace and Cooperation in Seoul.