Saturday’s military spectacle showed that Kim Jong Un is without doubt his father’s son—only bigger. Kim became Supreme Leader by virtue of his birth. But will patriarchal lineage and military strength prove sufficient to keep him in power?
Dictators love a parade, and Kim Jong Un is no exception; he has just staged North Korea’s largest yet. A procession of soldiers, aircraft, rockets, and tanks filled Pyongyang’s Kim Il Sung Square on Saturday, marking the sixtieth anniversary of the Korean War armistice. Enormous portraits of Kim’s late father and grandfather overlooked proceedings from the Grand People’s Study Hall, asserting the power of his patrimonial lineage.
The path to supreme leadership seemed easy enough for this chosen son. The genetic lottery may not have favored Kim Jong Un in many respects, but it still propelled him to the position of world’s youngest head of state.
In fact, North Korean national identity is inherently linked to the veneration of Kim Il Sung and his progeny. Any interruption of the bloodline would tear at the nation’s cultural fabric, and perhaps lead to the downfall of the entire government structure.
Furthermore, Kim Jong Un’s governing cabal of family, generals, and senior officials have withstood the test of purges, and essentially tied their fates to his own. This North Korean aristocracy enjoys unusual privileges amid extraordinary poverty. They have nearly as much to lose as their young protégé. This creates a vested interest for elites to sustain their Supreme Leader.
The Kim dynasty’s grip on power may appear undiminished for the moment, but future challenges abound. Kim Jong Un’s rule still depends on control of the military, while avoiding civil insurrection, war, and reunification with the South. Any of these scenarios could lead to the rapid collapse of the regime.
The preponderance of uniforms surrounding Kim Jong Un at the anniversary parade suggests both weakness and strength of his regime. Such images are doubtlessly intended to burnish the martial credentials of a junior head of state. However, they also point to increasing military influence at the apex of government.
The late Dear Leader, Kim Jong Il, was masterful at balancing competing interests. As the military became a formidable political force, he checked its growth by promoting the party machine. He also instituted an overlapping command structure, established intra-military surveillance, and used divide-and-rule tactics to master his generals. Yet, it remains to be seen whether his son has sufficient wit for this balancing act. If not, a team of uniformed rivals may emerge to challenge Kim Jong Un’s authority. Last year’s purge of General Ri Yong Ho suggests he is cognizant of this risk.
Diminished institutional cohesion and increasing social inequality might also make the status quo untenable. When famine threatened Kim Jong Il’s succession in 1994, government authority over food distribution was decentralized to local bureaucracies. The result was severe infighting and corruption, which still threatens to blossom into paralysis and mass starvation.
This vulnerability is exacerbated by reliance on foreign aid, particularly from Seoul and Beijing. While Chinese Vice President Li Yuancho was the honored guest at Saturday’s parade, the bilateral relationship is no longer as ‘close as lips and teeth,’ as Mao once described. Coastal mercantilist Xi Jinping, China’s President since November 2012, appears to have little kinship with his North Korean counterpart. Kim’s Mao suit is unfashionable these days.
Yet, the greatest danger to Kim Jong Un is the escalation of armed hostilities, leading to a broad conflict with South Korea and her allies. It is not difficult to imagine a North Korean provocation that could trigger renewed war. The speed and ferocity of violence likely to grip the peninsula would destabilize the entire region. It would also probably lead to the death or ousting of Kim Jong Un.
Saturday’s parade suggests that these potential scenarios and more might take place during Kim Jong Un’s tenure. There seems no immediate threat to the stability of the regime on the surface, and the Supreme Leader’s personality cult probably precludes another individual emerging to take power. Nevertheless, internal tensions within the military and civil society are likely to endanger his rule, while Kim’s inexperience and bellicosity could easily trigger a wider conflagration.
Parades and propaganda aside, Kim Jong Un does not seem endowed with any particular qualities of leadership. He appears to be distinguished solely by his parentage. To sustain the family business, Kim Jong Un will need to demonstrate more than missiles and a genetic preferment to power.