The international media has been drawn to the story of the possibility of a fourth-generation hereditary succession of the Kim family regime. This made headlines in global media outlets over the weekend of November 18-21. This is the second announcement of the successor hypotheses, the first occurring in April 2020 when the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s health was rumored to be worsening. This time, however, the theory of succession emerged from very different circumstances.
North Korea tested another intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) on November 18th. It is believed to be the most powerful missile launched this year, and it is believed to be able to hit the U.S. mainland. While an ICBM certainly should be of main national security concern, it has now been overshadowed by a little girl holding the North Korean leader’s hand. It was Kim Jong Un’s daughter who observed the missile launch at the side of her father.
Due to her unusual first public appearance, a flood of speculation followed. Among them, bold predictions about the succession of the first daughter have been made. Clearly, this well-orchestrated propaganda event was meant to send a message. But is that message about succession? It may only be an attempt to “humanize” Kim Jong Un as he makes nuclear threats. Or perhaps he could be using his daughter as a “human shield” to deter an alliance strike, somehow thinking the ROK and U.S. would not attack the site with his daughter present at the launch site. But the focus of the media and pundits has been on succession so it must be addressed.
Former North Korean leader Kim Jong Il was recognized as an official successor through a party congress in 1980 after taking the head chief post in 1973 of the Organization and Guidance Department, which controls the party and the nation. Kim Jong-un also was unveiled at the 2010 party convention after his idolization of succession in 2009.
This little girl’s appearance in the North Korean media is indeed unprecedented and symbolic. Still, it provides insufficient evidence for the nine-year-old child to be the successor to her father.
Undoubtedly, predictions about an extremely isolated and secretive society like North Korea are often wrong. There is no way to know if this is a succession process or not. However, the so-called expert and media predications could be the effect that Kim wants to achieve, making it a fait accompli that the future leader of North Korea should be the one from the Kim family. Accepted hereditary success is a key regime legitimacy and rule of the Guerrilla Dynasty and Gulag State. If that is Kim’s desire, should the world accept it? Should the Korean people living in the north accept it? Unfortunately, no media or experts pointed out the injustice of the regime’s power succession.
It is true that one of Kim Jong-un’s children is likely to become the successor in the future, where every word of the leader is more absolute than the law, the Party Charter, and the North Korean Constitution. Nevertheless, this does not mean that the hereditary power must be the fate of the Korean people in the north. Analysis of the hereditary succession process must be focused on the future of the people living in the North, not just the legacy of the dictatorship.
Does the Korean people’s choice or desire not matter at all in the outside world’s view of North Korea? Is another hereditary succession for those dying from the oppression and hunger of 70 years of one-man dictatorship what the world wants for the Korean people?
By legitimizing hereditary succession, the international community accepts that “North Korea is the country of the Kim regime.” It is as if those outside of North Korea have also been indoctrinated by the regime’s Propaganda and Agitation Department.
North Korea took the name “The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea” at its founding in 1948. This should mean that the state is based on people-centered democracy and republicanism. But the true meaning of democracy or republicanism have never been explained to the Korean people and they have never experienced a political system that is based on self-government by the people. They have lived under a tyrannical political system for seven decades. The world knows that hereditary succession is not a legitimate political system, yet the media continues to chase this story, which only strengthens the regime.
The North Korean Constitution does not specify a hereditary succession in any provision. Instead, it stipulates that the supreme leader should be chosen through the elections of the Supreme People’s Assembly. Clearly, voting is a procedure that should prohibit a single individual from appointing his successor based on his decision alone.
In truth, none of the hereditary North Korean leaders have ever been elected through a legitimate democratic process. They became the supreme leaders simply because they were Kim Il Sung’s son and grandson.
North Korea should be neither the Kim family nation nor a dynastic feudal state. It is a country where sovereignty must be returned to the people in accordance with the constitution and the ideology of the national foundation. All people have the right to self-determination of government.
No one will be able to answer accurately what will change if they predict the next successor of North Korea and what the observation of North Korea’s hereditary succession means.
However, as we have seen through Kim Jong-un’s hereditary succession, nothing has changed. Rather, nuclear weapons and missiles have increased, and suffering by the country’s population has been doubled.
Those who have escaped from North Korea consider the discussion of the fourth succession a blasphemy that brutally tramples on the hopes of freedom and human rights of Koreans living in the north. They should not be told as if it were natural to live under the oppression of a fourth hereditary dictatorship in perpetuity. Any talk of hereditary succession in the north must be accompanied by an unequivocal denouncement of such a process. The international community should strive to inform the Korean people of their plight and their rights. It should provide them with practical knowledge on how to effect change from within. The world must demonstrate its willingness to stand with the Korean people as they demand change. Such change must result in a free and unified Korea.
Don’t be a voice of frustration but be the one of hope.
Hyun-seung Lee is a fellow at Global Peace Foundation and an advisor to the North Korea Human Rights Watch. He is a highly sought-after consultant specializing in North Korea affairs for a variety of think tanks and NGOs in the Washington, D.C. area. As the son of a high-ranking DPRK government official, Hyun-seung was raised in an elite environment with the most prestigious opportunities available in North Korean society. After graduating summa cum laude from Pyongyang Foreign Language School, he completed his military service as a sergeant for the 4th Corps and the General Staff Department of Korea People’s Army. He was granted membership in the Korean Workers’ Party when he was twenty years old. He also served as Chairman of the Kim Il Sung Socialist Youth League in the Dalian, China branch while studying at China’s Dongbei University of Finance and Economics. He then worked in DPRK-China business relations in a managing role for a business entity under the DPRK regime. Despite his prestigious background and elite-level education, a series of brutal purges by Kim Jong Un forced him and his entire family to defect in 2014 and they are now settled in the United States.
David Maxwell, a 1945 Contributing Editor, is a retired US Army Special Forces Colonel who has spent more than 30 years in Asia and specializes in North Korea and East Asia Security Affairs and irregular, unconventional, and political warfare. He is the Editor-in-Chief of Small Wars Journal. He is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Senior Fellow at the Global Peace Foundation (where he focuses on a free and unified Korea), and a Senior Advisor to the Center for Asia Pacific Strategy.
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