Monday, January 9, 2012

Succession in North Korea: A Family Affair

When Kim Jong Il died of a heart ailment on December 17, 2011, the international community focused its attention on his son and successor Kim Jong Un. Little is known about Kim Jong Il's third son, who is reported to be 27 years old and was recently made a full general. Kim Jong Un was not publicly acknowledged to be the successor to his father until 2010, in sharp contrast to how his grandfather, Kim Il Sung, carefully managed his own succession over a long period of time. This excerpt from the second edition of Dr. Spencer C. Tucker's The Encyclopedia of the Korean War: A Political, Social, and Military History recounts the details of North Korea's previous leadership change.


Kim Il Sung had early on chosen his son to be his political heir. He wanted to avoid the years of confusion and the ultimate repudiation that followed the deaths of his Soviet and Chinese contemporaries. Throughout the 1970s the ground was carefully laid for Kim's succession of his father. The North Korean top leadership, including Pak Song Chol, O Chin U, Kim Yong Nam, Yi Chong Ok, Chon Mun Sop, and So Chol, supported the succession. In preparation for this eventuality, North Korean authorities went to extraordinary lengths to glorify Kim and his accomplishments.

North Koreans began placing Kim's portraits along with those of his father in their homes, offices, and workplaces. In September 1973, Kim became a secretary of the Central Committee of the North Korean Workers' Party (NKWP) and, the following year, a member of its Politburo. By then, songs were being sung about him among party cadres, which carried special notebooks to record his instructions. And a slogan came into being: "Let's give our fealty from generation to generation."

 Despite his prominence in the NKWP, Kim's rise to power and selection as his father's successor were unacknowledged for several years, and his activities were masked under the mysterious "Tang Chungang" (Party Center), who was given credit for wise guidance and great deeds. This veil was lifted at the Sixth Congress of the NKWP in October 1980, when Kim was publicly named to the Presidium of the Politburo, the Secretariat of the Central Committee, and the Military Commission. In other words, he was openly designated as successor to his father.

Kim received the title of Dear Leader, close to that of Kim Il Sung's Great Leader. Both Kims were addressed and referred to in specific honorific terms not used for anyone else. As was done for his father's birthday of April 15, Kim's birthday of February 16 came to be celebrated as a national holiday. In December 1991 Kim was named supreme commander of the North Korean armed forces. By the time of his father's death in July 1994, Kim had come to be ranked second in the leadership, behind his father and ahead of his father's old comrade-in-arms, O Chin U, who died of cancer in early 1995.

About Dr. Spencer C. Tucker:
A Senior Fellow in Military History for ABC-CLIO since 2003, Dr. Spencer C. Tucker has been instrumental in establishing ABC-CLIO as the premier military history reference publisher in the country. Tucker's interest in military history began while he was a student at the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) and was enhanced by a Fulbright Fellowship in France and while serving as a captain in military intelligence in the Pentagon during the Vietnam War. Although he concentrated on Modern European History in his graduate studies, he became interested in all periods of military history. Spence taught at the university and college level for 36 years, 30 of these at Texas Christian University and the last six as holder of the John Biggs Chair of Military History at VMI. Spence is particularly excited to be the editor of ABC-CLIO's award-winning series of war encyclopedias, which includes the 2nd edition of The Encyclopedia of the Korean War: A Political, Social, and Military History.

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