Unstable North Korean dynasty troubles Asia

A stronger military is not good news for either the people of North Korea or its international neighbours.

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Kim Jong-il struggled to fill his father's shoes when he took power in North Korea in 1994. He didn't have the same cult of personality or grip on the reins of government, so he turned to the military for support. It was a remarkable feat of political survival - and one that put the generals in a position to influence foreign policy for the past 15 years. Their role helps to explain Pyongyang's belligerent posturing, periodic border attacks on South Korea, and nuclear weapons programme.
While it is difficult to take the pulse of the so-called Hermit Kingdom, it is clear that Mr Kim's health is failing. His third son, Kim Jong-un, was yesterday promoted to the rank of four-star general in an obvious sign of the impending succession. The reshuffle of top military and party posts in the past week is equally revealing. Relatives and old allies of the Kim dynasty were promoted to key positions, including the chief of the shadowy "Room 39", which controls the regime's slush fund of foreign currency. The elder Kim is shoring up power for his young son's eventual accession.
"Right now Kim Jong-un has his weak points in his capability to control political power; he is too young and he hasn't had any experience," said Dr Song Dae-sung, president of the Sejong Institute think-tank in Seoul. "Without the support of the military side, he cannot enjoy political power." The army is the backbone of the North Korean state with more than one million soldiers in uniform in a country of about 24 million. Kim Jong-il's "military first" policy coined in the 1990s gives soldiers first priority when it comes to food and other scarce resources. The South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo reported on Monday that the army had stockpiled one million tonnes of rice - in a country that suffers from perennial food shortages.
A stronger military is not good news for either the people of North Korea or its international neighbours. The military aristocracy views itself as the key to the country's stability and its ability to shape events as the country's main bargaining chip in international relations. It will have much to say on whether the Korean Peninsula is ever unified. The international community should be watching events in Pyongyang with concern. Apart from the tens of thousands of Koreans suffering in gulags, and an entire population held in thrall by a backwards regime, North Korea is the Achilles' heel of stability in East Asia - not to mention one of the main suppliers of the illegal arms trade. Kim Jong-un's government, such as it is, will have influence far exceeding his experience.