It’s not unusual for businesses to pass from father to son. But when it comes to the Kim family of North Korea, it’s more than passing down a business – it’s about passing down a dynasty.
So, it’s no surprise that Kim Jong-il, the former dictator of North Korea, took considerable measures in his final days preparing the country for North Korea’s next ruler: his son, Kim Jong-un.
At least, that’s the argument Bruce Bechtol makes in his latest book The Last Days of Kim Jong-il: The North Korean Threat in a Changing Era. Bechtol spoke to an audience at the Heritage Foundation on May 29th about his new book, which explains how the Kim Jong-il government put in place certain policies to “maintain the power of the Kim family regime once the dear leader passed from the scene,” he said.
Bechtol, a former Intelligence Officer at the Defense Intelligence Agency and Senior Analyst for Northeast Asia on the Joint Staff in the Pentagon, claims Americans currently are “watching Kim Jong-un follow a script that was written for him by his father.”
“Thus, an analysis of the events that occurred during the last three years of the Kim Jong-il regime, moving into the first year-and-a-half of the Kim Jong-un regime, will help us to understand the reasons for what is happening now,” he said. “And that is what my book sets out to accomplish.”
For example, Bechtol explains how the North Korean government immediately began to “step up the [military’s] asymmetrical capabilities” after Kim Jong-il suffered numerous health problems between 2008 and 2009. The government increased “long range artillery, ballistic missiles that are not long range, and special operations forces,” Bechtol said.
Additionally, government spending focused more intently on military operations. “A lot of people assess that North Korea spends far more than 30 percent of their GDP on the military,” Bechtol said. “It’s actually more like 50 percent.”
The government then put its new military to test, using a torpedo to sink the South Korean navy ship, the Cheonan, in 2010. And as an important part of the succession, the North Korean military propagandized the attack, attributing its success to the “genius of Kim Jong-un.”
“Somebody is going to have to explain to me how a guy who has never been in the military planned this meticulous special operation forces submarine attack,” Bechtol said. “Do you really think Kim Jong-un planned that? I’m guessing no. They may have let him sit in the room.” But propaganda is part of the process, Bechtol said, as “that’s what’s needed to maintain [Kim Jong-un’s] power in the nation.”
Aside from conventional military preparations, Kim Jong-il continued to lay the groundwork for his son by increasing the country’s nuclear programs and continuing to supply proliferation arms to many state and non-state actors that support terrorist groups like Hezbollah and Al-Shabaab, Bechtol said.
And Kim Jong-un was rushed into key government positions in preparation for his eventual dictatorship, “surrounded by senior level people handpicked by his father to assure his power base,” Bechtol said.
But despite these hasty preparations made in Kim Jong-il’s final days, Bechtol believes Kim Jong-un’s lack of background and experience means he still has a long road ahead before stabilizing the North Korean government.
Not only does Kim Jong-un need the support from four key institutions – the party, military, security services and the inner-Kim family circle – to survive, Bechtol said, but he “must follow the same script as his father and his grandfather. He can’t get off that script, or the government will collapse.”
And what does that script contain? “Continued provocations, nuclearization programs, proliferation to non-state actors, and internal purges,” Bechtol said, “and yes, folks, we have seen all of that since Kim Jong-un took over in 2011.”
Isabel Mittelstadt is an intern at the American Journalism Center, a training program run jointly by Accuracy in Academia and its sister organization, Accuracy in Media.
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