Bear that in mind as you read Los Angeles Times Seoul correspondent John Glionna's piece on the brother-in-law of ailing North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, Jang Song-taek (장성택/張成澤; chang sŏngt'aek), whose daughter Jang Keum-song (장금성) committed suicide in Paris while studying there, reportedly when she refused to return to North Korea as ordered because of her unapproved love with somebody in Paris.
It starts thus:
He is an enigma from the world's most secretive state, a behind-the-scenes political operative known mostly as a trusted brother-in-law to North Korean strongman Kim Jong Il.Jang was the hardliner reportedly in charge of things after KJI had his stroke, and he supposedly "took the opportunity to crush any dissent."
But Jang Song Taek has recently emerged as a decisive player in the drama of who might succeed the ailing 67-year-old Kim in a country that remains defiant in the face of international pressure to dismantle its nuclear arsenal.
Looking weak following a suspected stroke in August, Kim last week publicly anointed Jang as his second in charge, analysts say, naming him to the powerful National Defense Commission.
The article goes on into the usual topics of neo-Confucianism focus on blood ties, which would preclude Jang from becoming leader himself but would make him the perfect trustee to guide the Dear Leader's chosen son to power.
But, as Glionna points out, not everyone agrees on what Jang's elevation to the National Defense Commission means:
Pyongyang watchers are divided about the move's significance. Some say Jang could assume power if Kim dies or is incapacitated, while others insist he would merely become the regime's caretaker, ensuring an orderly succession of power to one of Kim's three sons.So I'm going to make a prediction or two. First, the Dear Leader's not going anywhere. Yeah, he probably had a stroke in August, but if he's up and walking around like he has, he's out of the woods. He has survived the stroke; having had a stroke makes it clear that you're at high risk for another stroke, but it's not like cancer where the same stroke might come back on you.
Frankly, I think people are too premature about that, talking about how weak he is, how emaciated, how he's got one foot in the grave. I don't think such people have a whole lot of experience with stroke survivors. The guy is walking around and talking and smiling. Kirk freakin' Douglas had a much more severe stroke at the age of eighty, and thirteen years later he's still around, at ninety-three. The picture above is from two years ago during a Reuters interview.
Diabetes is more likely to do the Dear Leader in, but he's got some of the best doctors constantly watching his care, so even that might remain under control. His father had a giant tumor on his neck and still managed to live to the age of eighty-two. If KJI lives that long, we'll still be dealing with him in 2023.
But I do think that the stroke may have made things more difficult or made him more tired, or possibly even gave him a new perspective on life, and those things might lead him to give up some or all of his power, especially if he can oversee a shift in power to his sons. His brother-in-law can help make that happen, although if KJI really is incapacitated, we know from Korean history how uncles and brothers and mothers can really screw things up for the whole country.
If he oversees a transfer of power while physically strong and cognitively aware, his chosen relative (his son or his brother-in-law) may be firmly in power for quite some time (not unlike, say, Raul Castro might be in Cuba). But if he's enervated or cognitively weakened, his chosen successor might find himself playing nothing more than the role of figurehead, while the military or the rubber stamp parliament vies for power to see who calls the shots. Though things will probably not get violent, there is a potential for bloodshed.
So there you have it: I predict KJI will be here for the long haul but he will try to get one of his sons in power with the help of his brother-in-law, who will remain loyal to KJI, especially if KJI stays strong. If not, Brother-in-law Jang may try to wrest some power for himself, but there could be a lot of intrigue in Pyongyang at that time.
Sound good? Bear in mind that I have been wrong about a lot of my boldest predictions (like Han Myŏngsuk becoming the next president). Kim Jong-il could become Kim Jong-keel tomorrow.
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