Whether it was true or not that he has been on the verge of death, the truth is that the public absence of Kim Jong-un has led many to wonder who could succeed him at the head of North Korea.
A man from the Kim family has always been in charge of North Korea since Kim Il-sung founded the country in 1948, and the mythology of that family runs deep throughout society.
The propaganda about his greatness prevails in the citizenship before they can read: the preschoolers sing a song called: “I want to see our leader Kim Jong-un.”
So how could you imagine North Korea without this symbolic and political figure in command? How would elites and society in general organize?
When Kim Jong-un was being groomed to assume power, the term “Paektu lineage” began to be used to help legitimize his leadership.
Paektu is the mythological holy mountain where Kim Il-sung allegedly led a guerrilla war and where Kim Jong-il is said to have been born. Kim Jong-un still visits her when she wants to emphasize her important political decisions.
There has always been a Kim in the ideological heart of the country.
What would North Korea be like without an heir? Kim Jong-un, 36, is believed to have children, although they are too young. He is estimated to be three, the oldest, 10, and the youngest, 3. Kim Jong-un himself was considered young when he took power at 27.
Some sort of leadership grouping would probably emerge, perhaps as in Vietnam, which relies heavily on the teachings and legitimacy of its founder to support its position.
Observers can trace who holds certain vital positions and follow the news and intelligence sources on significant institutions. Still, they really cannot know how factions are developing, or who has accumulated power through personal rather than institutional ties.
Furthermore, deputy directors and managers sometimes exercise greater real power than the heads of institutions. This makes predictions very difficult to make.
Three members of the Kim family could potentially become involved in North Korea’s political makeup if Kim Jong-un were to disappear. Everyone faces obstacles in continuing to rule the family.
The first is Kim Yo-jong, Kim Jong-un’s younger sister. She is said to have been her father’s favorite, who commented on her precocity and interest in politics from an early age.
Her style is efficient, delicate, and, it could be said that she is quite observant. Much has been pointed out about the closeness he has with his brother. During the summit between Trump and Kim in Singapore, it was highlighted how he was on hand to deliver the pen with which Kim Jong-un signed the agreement. And at the next summit, in Hanoi, she was seen peeking behind the scenes when her brother posed for formal photos.
However, it was not exempt from being demoted after the Hanoi summit – allegedly due to the collapse of the summit itself, although that can never be confirmed.
She is not part of the country’s main legislative body, the State Affairs Commission. However, she is an alternate member of the Politburo and deputy director of the Propaganda and Agitation Department (DPA) of the Korean Workers’ Party. This may sound like an incomprehensible acronym, but DPA is a powerful organization that guarantees the ideological loyalty of the system.
But she is a woman, and that makes it difficult to imagine that she could occupy the leading position in such a profoundly patriarchal country.
North Korea is an extremely masculine-oriented state, in which gender carries rigid expectations. Being the supreme leader and indeed leading the army does not fit within a woman’s range of duties.
The second is Kim Jong-Chul. He is Kim Jong-un’s older brother but has never appeared to be interested in politics or power. (He is known for his interest in British musician Eric Clapton.)
At best, it could represent a symbolic link with the Kim family: perhaps he could be named head of a foundation and appointed to read the odd speech.
The last one is Kim Pyong-il, the middle brother of Kim Jong-il. His mother – Kim Jong-il’s stepmother – intrigued him to be the successor to Kim Il-sung. He failed and was marginalized as Kim Jong-il rose in influence.
Kim Pyong-il was sent to Europe in 1979, where he has served several times as an ambassador. He barely returned to North Korea last year, which means he is unlikely to have developed the network necessary to be a significant player in Pyongyang’s political elite.
The second most powerful man in North Korea now it.
Other people have played central roles in the Kim Jong-un era, but it is difficult to know who of all could form cooperative relationships and could compete with the others.
One is Choe Ryong-Hae. He has had his ups and downs in the Kim Jong-un administration, but after surviving storms, he currently chairs the Politburo and is the vice-chair of the State Affairs Commission.
Last year he became the first new president in 20 years, replacing the elderly Kim Yong-nam – who is the person representing the country in international participation.
Choe has also held senior positions in the military and in the Korean Workers’ Party Organization and Guidance Department (DOG), which is responsible for maintaining loyalty throughout the regime.
This is a very powerful organization: it demands the adherence of all citizens to the ideology of North Korea. He is probably the second most powerful man in the country.
Old spy chiefs and illustrious political ascendants
Another is Kim Yong-Chol. This general paved the way for the summits between Trump and Kim, meeting several times with the US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo.
He has headed the Department of the United Front (responsible for relations with South Korea) and the General Reconnaissance Bureau, the country’s leading intelligence service. He appears to have suffered degradation following the collapse of talks with the United States, but this spy chief is unlikely to remain in the shadows for long.
And one more is Kim Jae-ryong. In addition to forming the State Affairs Commission, he is the head of the Cabinet, a position of moderate influence. Relatively little is known about him, but his star has been rising in recent years while others have fallen.
He is known for managing industries and several years managing the country’s most isolated province, which is home to key sites of military and industrial manufacturing. This may mean that it has been closely linked to the nuclear program.
Jong Kyong-taek is responsible for the Department of State Security, which investigates and punishes political crimes. It also supports the physical protection of leaders. These are crucial responsibilities that help ensure the stability of the system.
Hwang Pyong-so is another official who has held senior military positions and administered the DOG during the Kim Jong-un era. Like Choe (and many others), he has been disciplined; however, it does not appear to have been rehabilitated in the same way. Other strong figures of foreign policy from the 2010s, Ri Yong-ho and Ri Su-Yong, have also seen their responsibilities decline recently. Ri Son-Gwon and Kim Hyung-jun replaced them. The former is said to be an ally of Kim Yong-Chol.
The military dome
A handful of senior generals from the Korean People’s Army (EPC) would also exert influence during a period of transition. Currently, there are two men on top of the EPC General Political Bureau, Kim Su-Gil and Kim Won-hong. This bureau guarantees the political loyalty of the military, something that would be crucial during periods of uncertainty.
Among the main elite, who would face-off, and who would form alliances? Would there be pro and anti factions Kim Yo-jong (Kim Jong-un’s sister)? Could the fear of instability prevent the flare-up of rivalries? After all, it is not in the interest of any of these elites for the state to collapse, opening the way for it to be absorbed by South Korea or even China.
There is no perfect contender right now: Her sister would have to overcome sexism and break the tradition of a male heir. The rest are not direct descendants of the indispensable distinguished Paektu lineage, but ultimately, they will have to consider the unity of the state for whose preservation they have defied all international norms.