Capping more than a week of public mourning, North Korea staged a dramatic state funeral for its late leader Kim Jong Il. Leading the ceremonies was Kim’s third son and apparent successor Kim Jong Un.
North Korean media reports portray the younger Kim, who is reportedly in his late 20s, in full control of the impoverished, nuclear-armed country. But while consolidating his political power may be easy, establishing his legitimacy will be tougher.
Flanked by army jeeps, Kim walked at the head of a black limousine bearing his father’s casket. Another limousine followed bearing a portrait of Kim Jong Il smiling in his trademark khaki jumpsuit.
The cortege went on, rolling through the snow-covered streets of Pyongyang, which were lined with weeping, chest-beating soldiers and civilians.
While the displays of emotion appeared genuine for some, at times they also seemed ritualistic and histrionic.
“The Dear Leader worked only for the people’s happiness,” a state television announcer lamented. “And now those people are bursting into tears at the sight of his body being taken to his father’s mausoleum.”
Since Kim’s death on Dec. 17, his son has moved quickly to take charge of the ruling Worker’s Party, the state and the military. But analysts believe the real power behind the young Kim is his uncle and mentor Jang Song Taek, who once served as Kim Jong Il’s chief advisor.
Chung Min Lee, dean of the graduate school of international studies at Seoul’s Yonsei University explains: “Jang Song Taek is the most senior member of the Kim family and as a result, he has a critical role to play. Whether he will be able to rule behind the throne, as it were, nobody really knows. But the key message here is the army and the party and the Kim family are one.”
While the power transition appears to be growing smoothly now, North Korea’s leaders have had some difficulties grooming the young Kim for power, in the nearly three years since his father suffered a stroke.
Two armed attacks on South Korea and a domestic currency change were all supposed to build up the young Kim’s resume. But Chai Jin Wook, a North Korea expert at the Korean Institute of National Unification in Seoul, says they turned out to be liabilities instead of assets.
“They have nothing to show to give credit to Kim Jong Un, so that’s why North Korea is trying to find legitimacy based on his family background,” he adds.
Experts say North Korean elites generally buy into the Kim royal bloodline and a militarized, nuclear-armed state as sources of legitimacy.
North Korea expert Bryan Myers of Dongseo University in Busan says that North Korea can’t pin hopes for legitimacy on economic performance, because its neighbors to the South are doing it so much better.
“I can’t see who inside the elite would have an interest in converting North Korea from a military-first state, from a very successful far-right state, into a poor man’s version of South Korea,” Myers says.
Per capita incomes in South Korea are at least 13 times higher than those in the North, and were the North to open up; experts predict its government could not meet expectations of higher living standards.
This is why, says Yonsei’s Chung Min Lee, North Korea only works as a closed system. And its generals are not wrong in fearing that they could lose power if they try the same market reforms that have worked for China and Vietnam.
“As long as they maintain that closed system, that regime will survive. But the moment begin they pry open their doors, the moment that technology and capital and other kinds of news comes in, that is the beginning of the end of the Kim Dynasty.”
But the problem with hereditary dynasties, of course, is that each ruler tends to have less power than the previous generation, and justifying the regime’s existence just gets harder and harder.