The Kim Dynasty in North Korea

By Jun Isomura

By Jun Isomura

Directors of movie thrillers use red herrings to throw the audience off, and the director gloats over the resulting confusion as the viewers attempt to solve the secrets and riddles of the film. North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il is a huge film fan, and it is said he wanted to be a movie director in his youth. Even now, he seems to be directing a thriller, twisting and turning, making feints and dropping hints until even his own aides have trouble reading his real aims. This is not to make light of Kim Jong Il’s ferocity and the dangers attendant in his rule, but an attempt to analyze him and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) from his point of view, having to use some of our own conjecture and imagination because of the limited amount of information available from the DPRK.

On November 23, the DPRK launched an artillery attack on South Korea’s Yeonpyeong Island. Several possible reasons have been put forward by analysts, but we know that there are always multiple aims and hidden hints and messages in the DPRK’s actions. The attack was rather different from the revelation of a modern uranium enrichment plant at Yongbyon to U.S. atomic scientist Siegfried Hecker earlier in the month, and different from the nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009, and different still from the launch of the Kwangmyongsong-2 missile in 2009 – all of which were designed to attract America’s attention. The November 23rd attack might be an epoch-making event – not only one of the most serious attacks on South Korean soil since the Korean War, but the start of a new operation by Kim Jong Il.

What hidden messages might be read in the attack?

What is Kim Jong Il Up To?

Conceivably, Kim Jong Il’s aims might include continuation of the Six-Party Talks; the DPRK’s intention to seek direct negotiations with the U.S. on a bilateral peace treaty; a protest against the U.S.-South Korea joint naval exercises in the Yellow Sea; the counteroffensive to South Korea’s drilling in disputed territorial waters; a full display of Kim Jong Il’s power; previewing third son Kim Jong Un’s dictatorship as the successor to Kim Jong Il; or an example of Kim Jong Il’s guidance to Kim Jong Un.

Or, it might be to raise tensions and/or threaten Beijing.

Threaten Beijing? It might sound strange, but the nature of relations between Pyongyang and Beijing is “threat and friendship.” In other words, “cajole, demand and threaten” from the DPRK. And to be clear, Beijing in this case means the Hu Jintao regime in Beijing. It is not synonymous with China.

The DPRK maintains strong ties to the Liaoning, Jilin, and Heilongjiang provinces of China, especially with the People’s Liberation Army (the official name of the Chinese armed forces – PLA) in those places since the Korean War. During the war, the PLA deployed its armed forces under the name of the Chinese People’s Volunteer Army (PVA), separately organized to avoid an official war with the United States. Many Korean units from Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture (today) in Jilin Province participated in the PVA. Additionally, Northeast China (constituted by those three provinces) is historically rather different from Beijing, being on the far side of the Great Wall of China.

Beijing has been carefully monitoring those three provinces as well as Inner Mongolia (the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region) that is also outside the Wall. Those are difficult regions for Beijing to manage even though the Communist Party of China (CPC) has thrown tremendous efforts into maintaining stability and promoting Beijing’s influence there.

It is clear that Kim Jong Il carefully handles relations with both Beijing and those three provinces according to circumstances. In over 2000 years of history between China and Korea there have been both good relations and other types. Tense relations with China’s Ming and Qing Dynasties existed during the recent Joseon Korean Dynasty (1392-1897). It is clear, however, that Kim Jong Il is the most “spoiled child,” even he is far from a child and one of the most high-dictators in Korean history.

China Was the Real Target of the Attack on Yeonpyeong Island

During Kim’s visit to China in May 2010, Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao rejected Kim’s demand for large-scale economic aid because Kim would not accept Wen’s insistence on economic reform in the DPRK. Furthermore, Beijing suggested a review of its overall relations with the DPRK. Kim Jong Il angrily curtailed his trip and returned to Pyongyang. It appears that he started at that point to lay plans to avenge his humiliation in Beijing.

Since Kim Jong Il suffered a cerebral stroke in 2008, his power has declined rapidly in the DPRK, exacerbated by the then-lack of a chosen successor. In a Korean dynasty, which is what Kim’s father, Kim Il Sung, the founder of the DPRK, established, it is critically important for Kim to nominate and present his successor to keep power. Otherwise, Beijing might be convinced that Kim’s power was declining in a way that left an opening for Beijing to exert influence. At the same time, Kim Jong Il would not have overlooked the weakening of the Chinese central government, where a power vacuum is developing with the PLA and hardliners expandingpower rapidly and significantly not only in Beijing, but also locally.

Around this time it was believed that Kim Jong Il appointed his third son, Kim Jong Un, as his successor to revive his waning power and test Beijing’s apparent weakening. Kim asked Hu Jintao to come to Changchun in Jilin Province on August 27, saying that “he [Kim] was very pleased to meet Hu Jintao four months after [his previous visit to Beijing], expressing deep thanks to him for sparing his precious time to come to Changchun far away from the capital to kindly receive him and according cordial hospitality to him.”[i] It was an “unofficial visit” for Kim.

Jilin Province was a part of ancient Korea – Goguryeo from 37 B.C. to 668 A.D. – and the place of Kim Il Sung’s revolutionary activities.

Hu Jintao said at the meeting, “Kim’s visit to Jilin Province and Heilongjiang Province, where the historical roots of Sino-DPRK friendship were provided amid the common struggle against foreign aggressors, is of particular importance in boosting the traditional bilateral relations of friendship and cooperation onto a new higher stage.” Dai Bingguo, State Councilor of China and one of the highest-ranking figures in Chinese foreign policy, said also that “General Secretary Kim Jong Il’s China visit marks a historic event which recorded a shining chapter in the strengthening the Sino-DPRK friendship”[ii]. Both repeatedly stressed the friendship between China and DPRK, and must have felt the need to do so. The Korean Central News Agency of DPRK (KCNA)’s August 30 article “Kim Jong Il pays Unofficial Visit to China,” noted that the word “friendship” was used 23 times in the article, but the word “friendship” was not heard in Kim Jong Il’s speech at the meeting as he stood beside Hu Jintao – who used it eight times, for those who are counting.

DPRK demands of Beijing might not have been only for food and energy for the winter. Under the terms of UN Security Council Resolution 1874 (2009) Beijing was supposed to block trade and business, including money laundering and the smuggling of drug, arms, and nuclear-related materials, between the DPRK and PLA and its companies in three northeastern Chinese provinces. Fear that Beijing would comply with the resolution might be reason enough for Kim Jong Il to threaten Beijing.

The attack on November 23 was a critical tool for pushing Beijing into a corner. The United States, South Korea, and Japan strongly demand that Beijing influence the DPRK, but Beijing has no leverage. Its only option is to propose an emergency round of the Six-Party Talks in which it would take the role of chairman and try to escape the demands of the other members.

Nuclear Talks Figure Prominently in Kim’s Calculations

Beijing sent Dai Bingguo to Pyongyang and he met with Kim Jong Il on December 10th in what appears to have been more of a courtesy call than an effort to convince the DPRK to be quiet. Kim Jong Il understood that the United States, South Korea, and Japan would not accept the Beijing’s proposal for emergency talks, so he showed a positive reaction to the proposal – pushing Beijing even farther into the corner. Beijing is eager to solve the problem – or at least restore status quo ante – before Hu Jintao’s visit to Washington, D.C. in January 2011.

Kim Jong Il is surely gloating. Pushing farther, Pyongyang received New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and a CNN reporter on December 16, just one week after Dai Bingguo’s visit there. Kim Jong Il didn’t meet with Gov. Richardson himself, but certainly he conducted the visit from behind the curtain.

Gov. Richardson received unexpected gifts as DPRK agreed to negotiate the shipment of 12,000 fresh nuclear fuel rods out of the country and to receive IAEA inspectors. Of course, such technical details as the enrichment level and specs of the fuel remain unclear. The DPRK surely plans to charge someone for the shipment of the fuel rods, but it is unclear that anyone will pay for an uncertain grade of nuclear fuel.

In the KCNA, there were only three very short news items[iii],[iv],[v] about Gov. Richardson’s comings and goings in Pyongyang. By contrast, the KCNA ran an article on December 19 about Germany’s proposal for the withdrawal of the American nuclear weapons from NATO member countries.[vi] Like everything journalistic in the DPRK, this is not an accident. The German proposal is not new, but its sudden appearance in the DPRK is a not-quite-hidden hint from Kim Jong Il, that the withdrawal of the American nuclear weapons from the Korean Peninsula would make a possible trade for shipping the fuel rods out of the DPRK.

Beijing has two great fears as regards events in the DPRK. First, Beijing believes the DPRK is the East Germany of China; its economic and social collapse would be a nightmare for Beijing reminiscent of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Second, Beijing fears that should the DPRK actually face collapse, Kim Jong Il might target missiles with nuclear or biochemical warhead on Beijing as a final gesture.

The following scenario might be the one Kim Jong Il orchestrated.

By receiving Gov. Richardson and CNN, Kim Jong Il pushed Beijing, using his Western guests as a stalking horse. Dai Bingguo couldn’t claim that the he had any success on his visit to Pyongyang that couldn’t equally be claimed by Gov. Richardson. Kim Jong Il surely finely calibrated those events.

It is unclear the depth of the conflict between the DPRK and Beijing today, and it will likely be resolved behind closed doors. The DPRK, however, is clearly taking advantage of Beijing’s weakness. The DPRK might have informed PLA officials in Jilin and Liaoning Provinces about the attack on the South Korean island in advance. There is some thought that those PLA officers might cooperate with the DPRKto threaten Beijing, as they are angry over Beijing’s interference in the smuggling trade with the DPRK. In the provinces, smuggling is tremendously lucrative for the PLA. In the meantime, a Western intelligence agent interviewed Chinese trades people who returned to Dandong, the Chinese border city, who said they don’t want to go to North Korea again.

On September 28, Kim Jong Un was publicly and officially named vice chairman of the Workers Party of Korea’s Central Military Commission and successor to Kim Jong Il. Kim Jong Un’s mother, Ko Young-hee, was born in June 16, 1953 in Osaka, Japan and moved to North Korea in 1961 with her Korean descended family. She died of breast cancer at the Georges Pompidou Hospital in Paris in 2004.[vii]

The designation of a ruler’s successor is a tremendous event in Korean history. It is hard to imagine that the leadership of the DPRK would be passed peacefully through three generations, as the designation of a king in Korean history was often accompanied by bloodshed and factional strife. That might be why it took some time for Kim Jong Il to officially announce his third son as his successor. While it will be never publicly disclosed, at least two powerful aides to Kim Jong Il died in 2010 before the announcement. One particularly important aide, Ri Je Gang, was killed in a car accident.

One expert in DPRK politics has theorized that Kim Il Sung might have been killed by Kim Jong Il or his aides to seize power from the founder of the DPRK. It seems, he said, that Kim Il Sung never considered Kim Jong Il to be an appropriate successor. This scenario is consistent with the fact that Kim Jong Il spent five years in mourning. He might well have needed that period to take control of the inner circle, liquidating enemies and foiling plots against him.

Kim Sets the Stage

On December 15, there was a nationwide civil defense exercise in South Korea amid rising tensions over increasing belligerence from the North. The DPRK’s attack exposed South Korea’s defensive vulnerability and was noteworthy for consolidating hard-line public opinion in South Korea to pressure President Lee Myung-bak. The subsequent series of exercise and live-fire drills were intended to redeem the South Korean military’s honor. But while, Kim Jong Il was no doubt happy with the unexpected benefit of exposing the South’s vulnerability, South Korea is not the target of the DPRK. KCNA, in fact, sneered at the live-fire artillery exercise on the 20th, noting that “the revolutionary armed forces of the DPRK did not feel any need to retaliate against every despicable military provocation” and introduced a communiqué from the Supreme Command calling the drills “childish play with fire”.[viii]

The DPRK doesn’t recognize South Korea as its counterpart since South Korea refused to sign the Armistice Agreement of the Korean War in 1954. So Kim Jong Il believes he is the Emperor of the Great Korea, not only unified Koreas, but including the ancient Korea – Goguryeo. Therefore, he is hesitant to fire at civilians in South Korea because, in his mind, they are part of his realm. This is, of course, inconsistent with the enormous state-initiated famine and the massive human rights violations in the DPRK.

It must be asked whether Kim Jong Il could have created and carried out such a complicated strategy by himself since he has been ill. Is it possible that someone else is running the show?

Not likely.

With his incredible character and a strong dictatorship, Kim Jong Il almost surely took the initiative to draw up the strategy, and such work could be the most effective medicine for him. Kim Jong Il showed his power again with the designation of his successor. It seems that Kim Jong Il is writing the last chapter of his life today with long and solid contentment.

The year 2012 will be the most dangerous year with political vacuums of the world. There will be the changing Chinese leader, presidential elections in the United States, Russia and South Korea, and a parliamentary election in Japan. Additionally, 2012 is the centennial of Kim Il Sung’s birth. Throw in the London Olympic Games and it will be a very interesting and dangerous period.

We don’t know what Kim Jong Il’s next scenario is going to be. It is in the interest of the United States and others to draw their own scenario for coping with the DPRK, and not find themselves playing parts in his adventure film.

Mr. Jun Isomura is a Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C.


[i] “Kim Jong Il Pays Unofficial Visit to China” Korean Central News Agency of DPRK.

[ii] Same as the above

[iii] U.S. New Mexico State Governor Arrives, Pyongyang, December 16 (KCNA)

[iv] Gift from Governor of New Mexico State of U.S., Pyongyang, December 20 (KCNA)

[v] U.S. New Mexico State Governor and His Party Leave, Pyongyang, December 21 (KCNA)

[vi] Minju Joson Barnds, U.S. as Mastermind of Nuclear Proliferation, Pyongyang, December 19 (KCNA)


[viii] North Korea backs down over South Korean drill, Reuters 2010-12-20