Autocracy, Legitimacy, and the North Korean Succession

Kim Jong Un is the appointed heir to his father, Kim Jong Il. But can he navigate North Korea's internal politics and stay in power?

The news media and the blogosphere are buzzing with speculation about the fate of North Korea in the wake of Kim Jong Il’s death. At first glance, this might appear surprising: in a regime the New York Times calls an “odd mixing of…ancient Confucian monarchy with a 20th-century Stalinist cult of personality” where dynastic succession is the rule, shouldn’t Kim Jong Il’s designated heir, his son Kim Jong Un, be able to smoothly take the reins of power? The fact that many observers expect a difficult and uncertain transition reveals some often overlooked insights about autocratic regimes.

A popular stereotype pictures autocratic leaders as omnipotent: they can do whatever they want without having to worry about domestic political constraints from pesky actors like a parliament or the general public.  But political scientists have pointed out that even autocratic leaders must worry about domestic politics and must gain support from key domestic actors (often the military, the intelligence services, or powerful business leaders) in order to retain power and accomplish their policy goals.  When it comes to leadership succession, autocracies may not give power to a broad-based electorate, but they do have a more narrow “selectorate” made up of those actors who are ultimately responsible for selecting a leader.

In the case of North Korea, the army is clearly the most important domestic actor that any prospective leader must contend with.  Kim Jong Il’s widow, sister, and brother in law are also regarded as key elites who, along with the generals, will play a role in the leadership succession.

At this point, experts disagree about whether Kim Jong Un will be able to consolidate power and how long this might take.  But a constant in their analysis is the centrality of domestic politics in determining his fate.   For example, Georgetown’s Victor Cha believes Kim Jong Un will not survive, due to the weakness of his supporters and the enmity of the military: “The ‘great successor,’ as he has been dubbed by the state media, is surrounded by elders who are no less sick than his father and a military that chafed at his promotion to four-star general last year without having served a day in the army. Such a system simply cannot hold.”

Harvard political scientist Stephen Walt is more optimistic about Kim Jong Un’s chances, but he also emphasizes the centrality of elite politics: “If North Korea’s ruling elite understands their own fragility and recognizes the dangers that a serious power struggle might pose, then Kim Jong Un can survive by default.  Why? Because he’s the one leader that all the potential contenders can agree on, if only to avoid the dangerous uncertainties that an open contest for power would entail.”

What do you think?  Will Kim Jong Un be able to take the reins of power from hsi father, or will a nasty succession battle occur?  Will the regime survive?  How is North Korea’s current situation different from cases in which autocracies have experienced smooth power transitions?

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2 responses to “Autocracy, Legitimacy, and the North Korean Succession

  1. Pingback: Will Domestic Politics Paralyze World Politics in 2012? | World Politics News Review

  2. Pingback: Domestic Politics, Misperception, and North Korea’s Missile Launch | World Politics News Review

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