The most well respected analysts argue that Kim Jung Un only had four years to prepare for his succession. There were no announcements made to the world in regard to his succession to power until 2008, following his father Kim Jung Il’s stroke. Kim Jung Il failed to appear at his 96th birthday celebration as a result. Analysts knew he wasn’t there because there is a special song, which is only played when he is present, which was not played during that ceremony.
In the spring of 2009 Kim Jung Un made his first public appearance, in the form of a trip he made to China. The trip was most likely to elicit support from Beijing for the succession, which at the time was being called “remnants of a feudal culture”.
Kim Jung Il’s Japanese chef, ‘Kenji Fujimoto’ (pseudonym), who lived with the royal family for eleven years from 1988 argued in his book "Kim Jung Il’s Chef," that Kim Jung Un was chosen as successor by the age of twelve. Fujimoto says that from the age of twelve everyone in the family was required to refer to him as “Top Comrade." Kim Jung Un was said to be his father's choice because his personality and character most resembled his father. Fujimoto described Kim Jung Un as a perfectionist with a volatile temper, making him perfect for defending control over the family political power during dynastic change.
Kim Jung Un is believed to have been born on January 8th, 1983. This means he has been preparing for succession for seventeen years. In contrast, his father Kim Jung Il had 26 years to prepare for succession. Kim Jung Un was sent to Bern, Switzerland from 1996 to 2001 where he studied in a middle school from the 7th to 9th grades under the name Pak Un. He excelled in Math, English, German, and played on a basketball team. According to Fujimoto, the Regime bought Kim Jung Un an official NBA basketball court when he returned to the DPRK from Bern. From 2001 to 2007 Kim Jung Un was sent to Kimilsung Military University to study in "special programs;" in essence how to be a military commander. It is known in the DPRK that only the leader of the country can expand the theory of Juche Ideology. Both Kim Jung Il and Kim Jung Un performed this theoretical work in their final college theses.
In 2008 when his father had a stroke, former close advisers to Kim Jung Il, Jang Sang Taek and Chae Young Hae, were brought back from three years of political marginalization and reinstated as regime confidants. These two technocrat civilians were immediately given membership in the National Defense Commission, the Party Central Military Commission, and the General Politburo. This rapid ascent to power immediately following their purge was a signal of shifting power dynamics. In 2009, their official appointments by Kim Jung Il to senior positions cemented the party and military reshuffle.
It is important to note that in the regime, Military First (Songun) Politics are the most important element of regime survival, especially during succession. It is the fact that to have two recently purged technocrats who have never worn a military uniform, or had any military training, to suddenly be in power is a key clue to deciphering the direction the future holds for internal DPRK regime politics.
Many analysts claim that the regime will collapse because Kim Jung Un doesn’t have enough experience or training, and because dissention in the ranks will result in a coup. There are three scenarios that analysts speculate will result from this “lack of control," as they view it. These scenarios are explained by Scott Snyder.
Scenario 1: A "managed succession" that would result in a loss of power for Kim Jung Un, with a collective leadership takeover and an open door for US-DPRK relations and an opportunity for the US to force the DPRK into abandoning its nuclear program in exchange for assistance. Scenario 2: A "contested succession" that would result in a civil war of competing factions, which would lead to a successor regime influenced by the southern Republic of Korea (ROK) and the US. Scenario 3: A "failed succession" that would be a complete breakdown of all authority and institutions, placing the DPRK into ‘failed state’ status and resulting in a ROK-US allegiance to absorb the former DPRK while soliciting aid from China and Japan. These scenarios, like much of Snyder’s work regarding the DPRK, are viewed in the ROK as ethnocentric and lacking empirical basis.
In 2010, Jang Sang Taek Was elevated to Vice Minister of the DNC. Instead of this internal political machination, the world only paid attention to the bombing at Yongpyang Island and the sinking of the Chon An submarine. The world saw these acts of aggression as completely unprovoked, irrational, and careless cries for help. The international community responded in ill manner by imposing heavy sanctions and threatening to cut all aid.
The real reason why the DPRK committed those two acts of aggression was to give legitimacy to Kim Jung Un within the regime as a brilliant military commander capable of leading the NDC. They worked. He was hailed as a brilliant commander who stood up to imperialism and a genius artillery commander and battle tactician. This earned him respect from the old commanders who had been loyal to Kim Il Sung and Kim Jung Il. This "brave act" also resulted in Kim Jung Un’s uncontested ascent to Vice Chairman of the Party Central Military Commission (PCMC) later that year.
Kim Jung Il finally died in December 2011, leaving the regime in the hands of his son through secretly embedded frameworks from the 3rd Party Delegates Conference in September 2010. These included tightening of military control and the military reshuffle as mentioned earlier. Up until Kim Jung Il's death, the whole succession went according to his plan.
At the same time, Kim Jung Un was straying from his father’s framework and surrounding himself with those most loyal to him, and distancing himself from those most loyal to his father. This was easy to do since he already maximized all of the political tools available to him, which were given to him by his father. We can see who was in the inner circle by who was carrying Kim Jung Il’s casket.
The pallbearers on the left were Kim Jung Il’s appointed military commanders, all in full military uniform. Since the funeral, all four of them - Lee Young Ho, Kim Yun Chun, Kim Jung Gag, and Wu Dong Chu- have been purged. The pallbearers on the right, all in civilian black suits, were Kim Jung Un, Jang Sung Taek, Chae Young Hae, and one more disputed individual, possibly Kang Seok Ju, or Kim Wan Hong (SSD Vice). Of those on the right, all are now wearing military uniform and have ascended to senior positions of control in the NDC, PCMC, Korean Workers Party (KWP) and General PolitBuro (GPB).
The apparatus of regime control was cemented in the 4th Party Delegates Conference on April 11th, 2012. Kim Jung Un was officially pronounced Marshall of the PCMC on July 18th, 2012. Jang Sang Taek can be seen as the interim patron from December until July. This shows that Kim Jung Un has completed succession because he is not dependent on his father's people anymore. By placing his own people in his circle it shows that he has completed a plan that he had personally designed four years ago.
2012 marks Kim Il Sung’s 100th Birthday, Kim Jung Il’s 70th Birthday, and Kim Jung Un’s 30th Birthday (Korean age). Known as the Eternal Leader (Permanent President), the official goal of the Regime, the Party, and the Workers is to throw a huge celebration to commemorate the special event. Now that the power transitions are complete, we can speculate on the new direction the regime will take based on civilians in control of the military, as controlled by Kim Jung Un.
The theme of 2012 in the DPRK is “A Powerful and Prosperous Nation." This assists the purge process of some of the threats to the political power of the Kim regime that have been built up since the 1990s: namely the collapse of the Public Distribution System (PDS), the dissatisfaction with Kim Jung Il, and the infiltration of information to all classes of people who know that the world inside the regime is full of various lies and forms of control. North Koreans across the board are aware that suffering for the regime and self reliance need to change so they can have a life comparable to the outside world.
It can be argued that by placing civilians in charge of the military, it is a signal to the world that the structure and ideology of the regime will shift. However, the world has to be paying close attention because the DPRK is isolated for very good reasons. They are rational actors, and even if they drastically change policy, they will be unlikely to open up any further than pursuing unification efforts. It all depends on how the US reacts to their actions.
Last week the DPRK released media to the world of Kim Jung Un and his wife (most likely) watching a Disney performance together with many senior officials and Party elites. The US reacted by saying “you didn’t have permission to do that." The US should have taken it as a positive signal, but instead reacted in a manner opposite to the way they should have if the US is seeking diplomatic progress. Next time they send a signal, the US should cater to it. If the US will finally learn how to read the DPRK and how to treat it with respect, then a normalization process could take place soon. The DPRK has been signaling since the succession that they desire normalization.
Speculation on normalization takes into account the fact that the DPRK will want to remain isolated, while also prospering and catching up with the rest of the world. The one bargaining chip available to the DPRK is its nuclear weapons. In the past the US has totally failed in getting the DPRK to give up its nuclear weapons because of "divide and conquer" tactics. These tactics are advocated by Scott Snyder.
Scott Snyder’s work is currently required reading for all diplomats from the US who negotiate with the regime. It should not be. The correct approach to normalization is to give the DPRK what they want: maintaining its political power, sovereignty, and a "Marshall Plan" for development. This would lead to slow integration. To "knock out two birds with one stone" in regard to the DPRK, the US could recognize the DPRK as a Monarchy and rescind international trade sanctions against it. The US can also offer it a "Marshall Plan" in exchange for accountability and a control process placed on the DPRK's nuclear program, while not forcing the DPRK to abandon its nuclear weapons. The US is going to have to "be the bigger person," and give the DPRK what it wants and stop treating it as the enemy if it is to begin the process of normalization while the window is still open.