x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

North Korea succession talks take sudden stop

Analysts believe the country's paramount leader, now healthier, does not feel the urgency of transition and is slowing down the process.

Confirmation that Kim Jong Il is healthy and in control is good news for the US.
Confirmation that Kim Jong Il is healthy and in control is good news for the US.

BEIJING // A hit song in North Korean restaurants in China for two months this summer included lyrics referring to Capt Kim Jong Un, the third son of the North Korean leader and his heir apparent.

Then, in August, as suddenly as it had appeared, bands dropped the song, Foot Step, from their repertoires. The song's rise and fall paralleled talks about the North Korean leadership and the process of succeeding Kim Jong Il, the secretive country's paramount leader. Mr Kim, 68, suffered a stroke last year that paralysed parts of his body. Such was the severity of the stroke that there were reports a team of French doctors secretly flew to Pyongyang, the capital, to perform brain surgery.

Like the song, such talk has all but gone. Yet although the urgency has abated, analysts say, the process of transition continues. One turning point was the visit by the former US president Bill Clinton in August to secure the release of two US journalists. Among the entourage was Mr Clinton's physician, Roger Band, taken ostensibly to check on the health of the detained journalists, Laura Ling and Euna Lee. But the physician's more important role was to covertly observe Mr Kim.

"Upon returning home, Bill Clinton made a debriefing to the White House, saying Kim Jong Il is healthy enough and still pretty much runs the country," said Rhee Bong-jo, a former South Korean vice minister of unification, the country's main arm for North Korean affairs. The confirmation that the dictator was healthy and in control of the country was good news for the United States and its allies.

A healthy Kim meant North Korea would not experience a potentially dangerous power vacuum or volatile transition between leaders during which the North's military might mismanage the country's nuclear weapons. A healthy Kim meant that outside concern about the internal North Korean power struggle could be put on the back burner. Even inside North Korea the same seemed to be happening. The Daily NK, a Seoul-based website run by North Korean defectors, said attempts by Capt Kim Jong Un to recruit cadres to his side were seen as overeagerness to expand his sphere of influence, and his father ordered him to "temper down".

Analysts believe Kim Jong Il, now healthier, does not feel the urgency of transition and is moderating the speed of the process. "It's against Kim Jong Il's interest to have open discussion on succession especially when he is now more confident with his health," Mr Rhee said. "The idea that there is a successor to the current leader means that the power will be split sooner or later. That's a destabilising factor for the incumbent leadership." Overall, North Korean watchers believe the succession process is unfolding and will probably go smoothly. The challenge will come afterwards.

"I don't foresee any dramatic obstacle during the succession process itself," said Shi Yinhong, a North Korea expert at Renmin University in Beijing. "Gradually, however, Jong Un's task of running the country will be harder than his father." Daniel Pinkston, an analyst on North Korean affairs from Seoul for the International Crisis Group, agreed with this view. "The succession process is pretty much institutionalised now. The challenge will be afterwards, on the intermediate and long term, depending on the capability of the new leader."

Experts believe Capt Kim Jong Un's most pronounced challenge will be his lack of legitimacy to become the nation's leader. Kim Il Sung's authority as the founder of the nation was unquestionable and he was deified. When Kim Jong Il succeeded his father, it was after a 20-year political apprenticeship. Mr Kim's legacy has already been cemented by his procurement of nuclear weapons. But the current heir-designate is still in his 20s and with not much to show for it.

"The key is whether or not Jong Un can establish his charisma as the new leader, comparable to his father or grandfather," Mr Rhee said. "That - will be pretty tough." foreign.desk@thenational.ae