by Sunny Lee, The National, September 13, 2009
BEIJING // A terse announcement by North Korea’s No 2 last week that there had been no internal discussion on who would succeed the country’s ruler, Kim Jong Il, was probably a smoke screen to divert outside attention from the process of choosing an heir.
The attention is unwanted because it could show North Korea is in a period of some volatility. When asked about succession, Kim Yong Nam, president of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly, the country’s unicameral parliament, told Japan’s Kyodo News Agency on Thursday: “We haven’t even had discussion on such an issue in our country. Our republic’s people are strongly united around Chairman Kim.”
The latest statement, from the country’s second most powerful man, drew attention for the contradictory fact that party officials had been rallying around the heir apparent, Kim Jong Un, the leader’s youngest son.
The Daily NK internet newspaper website, run by North Korean defectors in Seoul, reported that sources from North Korea said last week that the succession process for Kim Jong Un has been suspended. Since then, pundits have been divided over what the apparent stall in the succession process might mean.
The issue even prompted South Korean President Lee Myung-bak on Friday to speculate that it may be an indication that the situation in North Korea is “fluid”, hinting at a possible internal, factional row.
Some speculated that Mr Kim fell out of favour with the senior cadres of the Worker’s Party or the National Defence Commission, perhaps because the elders who make up the highest decision-making body in North Korea see Mr Kim as too young and inexperienced.
But Cheong Seong-chang, a senior fellow at the Sejong Institute, a Seoul-based think tank, sees Kim Yong Nam’s pronouncement as a diversionary tactic targeting a foreign audience. “It’s a smoke screen,” Mr Cheong said.
“Last year when Kim Jong Il was suffering from a stroke, the same Kyodo asked Kim Yong Nam about Kim Jong Il’s health. At that time, Kim Yong Nam said there was no problem with Kim Jong Il’s health. He even said such an allegation is a defamatory strategy from outside forces to undermine the nation. But we now all know that Kim Jong Il indeed had a health problem. So, it’s déjà vu,” Mr Cheong said.
Liu Ming, the director of International Relations Theory Studies at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, said: “My understanding is that after Kim Jong Il had a stroke last summer, North Korea prepared for a sudden change of leadership, including the “Dear Leader’s” death. But he now seems to have recovered well and [is in] very good health. So, there is no urgency. Therefore, they dropped the contingency arrangement for succession.”
Observers say it is possible North Korea is playing a two-track strategy: internally, it is speeding up the succession by continually unfolding the process; outwardly, it is diverting international attention from the drawn-out transfer of power.
Evidence for this comes from recent visitors to North Korea. “People who are authorised to deal with foreigners openly talk about Jong Un as the next leader,” said Leonid Petrov, a Russian specialist on North Korea, who is based at Australian National University.
“Kim Yong Nam is likely misrepresenting the situation for a foreign audience. It’s the usual tactic of a totalitarian regime to deny the obvious,” Mr Petrov said. The primary reason for North Korea to maintain a low profile for the succession, observers say, is to avoid outside criticism about the rare three-generation succession to the leadership of a modern state…
Also see Andrei Lankov’s recent opinion “North Kore’s Succession gets Twisted”