According to a source with "close ties to Pyongyang and Beijing," Reuters reports, Kim Jong-un will head a ruling coterie, sharing power with his uncle – Kim Jong-Il's brother-in-law, Jang Song-thaek – and the military. This would be the first time since its foundation that North Korea would not be led by a single figure – both the nation's founder, Kim Il-Sung, and his son, Kim Jong-Il, retained sole control of the government during their reigns.
The source, who, Reuters notes, correctly predicted North Korea's 2006 nuclear warhead test, said that the North Korean military "has pledged allegiance to Kim Jong-un," and that the risk of a military coup is "very unlikely."
The source also says that Beijing, despite being North Korea's closest ally, first heard of Kim Jong-Il's death at Monday's public announcement, two days after he had died. (Similarly, South Korean spy chief Won Sei Hoon is under pressure to resign due to Seoul's lack of warning about Kim Jong-il's death before the announcement, writes Bloomberg.)
The apparently smooth transition of power is likely due to Kim Jong-il setting up the coterie before his death, Koh Yu-hwan, president of the Korean Association of North Korean Studies in Seoul, told Reuters. "The relative calm seen these few days shows it's been effective. If things were not running smoothly, then we'd have seen a longer period of 'rule by mummy,' with Kim Jong-il being faked as still being alive," Mr. Koh said, adding that Kim Jong-Un would accept the coterie's setup for now.
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But Takashi Yokota, writing for the Daily Beast, argues that a coterie is actually nothing new, and that Kim Jong-il ruled in tandem with the military. "Contrary to the popular assumption that Kim Jong-il was the absolute leader," Mr. Yokota writes, "the Dear Leader was more of a figurehead who depended on his generals, instead of the other way around."
This power structure started taking shape following the 1994 death of “Great Leader” Kim Il-sung, the country’s founder. Kim Jong-il had a three-year grace period following his father’s death until officially becoming leader of the Hermit Kingdom. During that period, the Dear Leader spent his time buying their support by sprinkling high-ranking military officials with Mercedeses and luxury goods. He became the general-secretary of the Workers’ Party in 1997, and with his reelection as the chairman of the National Defense Council the following year, Kim Jong-il declared his Songun policy, or military-first policy, in which the military was elevated to the most powerful body in North Korea’s regime—eclipsing the ruling Workers’ Party in influence.
Yokota adds that Kim Jong-Il appears to have relied increasingly on the military after his stroke in 2008, as the military issued more government statements than the relatively moderate Foreign Ministry.
Says Kenneth Quinones, a former State Department negotiator with decades of experience dealing with Pyongyang: “The military is the most cohesive and strongest organization in North Korea’s government and society. North Korea is not a one-man dictatorship; it’s a military dictatorship with power shared between the Kim dynasty and the military.” So even with Kim Jong-il dead, “the North Korean military is in firm control of the situation, and the idea of having a power struggle is nonsense.”
Fred Kaplan of Slate says that the fact of the matter is "We really don’t know much of anything" about North Korea.
And by “we,” I don’t mean just the pundits. A few years ago, when the elder Kim was said to have suffered a stroke, and rumors churned of a succession crisis, I asked a fairly senior U.S. official whether even our intelligence agencies had much insight into the dynamics of internal North Korean politics. The official replied, “No.”
The country’s nickname is, after all, the Hermit Kingdom. Intelligence analysts pore over the government news agency’s stories and photographs and debrief defectors, learning about who sits where, and which officials are up or down. But little of substance is known about what any of these people really think or what policies they favor.
The outside world's ignorance about the new regime is further fueled by North Korea's lack of invitations to foreign dignitaries to attend Kim Jong-il's funeral, The Christian Science Monitor reported yesterday. Choi Jin-wook, senior North Korea analyst at the Korea Institute of National Unification, told the Monitor that the government fears that foreigners would be difficult to control while the people in Pyongyang are publicly and vocally mourning.
The Associated Press reports that tens of thousands of mourners on Wednesday crowded the main square in Pyongyang to pay their respects to Kim Jong-il. Jon Gyong-song, a doctor in a Pyongyang medical center, told AP that "The flow of mourners hasn't stopped since Tuesday night." BBC News writes that North Korean state media claimed that more than 5 million mourners have paid their respects, though the BBC notes that such a figure is impossible to verify. The BBC adds that such a turnout "would mean more than a fifth of the population had joined in the public grieving in the isolated, nuclear-armed state."