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?