Steam venting from the complex that houses the Soviet-era reactor in Yongbyon, spotted in satellite imagery taken at the end of August and released last month, tells us that the rogue regime of Kim Jong-un is about to go back into the business of producing plutonium. Weapons specialists and arms-control advocates uniformly expressed concern in the days following the unwelcome news, but followers of Bruce Bechtol know that Pyongyang’s program for enriching uranium is far more consequential than its small-scale plutonium efforts.
In The Last Days of Kim Jong-il, Bechtol outlines the progress North Korea has made in weaponizing uranium, the scope of this multidecade project, the sale of technology to Iran, and the response of the international community. Yet this is more than an exercise in description. At the heart of Bechtol’s analysis is an explanation of why these weapons, whether filled with plutonium or uranium cores, are so dangerous in the hands of the Kim family regime.
As he tells us, the ruling group is unstable, headed by a young leader constantly struggling with willful individuals, some of whom are scheming relatives and all of whom are rivals. And in the never-ending contest for power in Pyongyang, Bechtol explains, losers often come to a bad end. Beginning in 2010, senior North Korean officials started dying “under mysterious circumstances.” Some were killed in suspicious traffic accidents; others were simply executed. The deaths appear to have been arranged by Kim Jong-il, then the North’s leader, to assure the eventual succession of his youngest son, Jong-un, to ultimate power. As Bechtol points out, these “forcible removals” looked as if they were staged to open up vacancies in the regime; in fact, the number of executions tripled in 2010 over 2009, with at least 60 performed in public.
To be sure, peace did not come with the ascension of Kim Jong-un in December 2011, after his father’s fatal heart attack. And the new dictator—perhaps 27 at the time—was ruthless, even ordering the assistant chief of staff of the Ministry of the People’s Armed Forces to be obliterated with a mortar round, “to leave no trace of him behind down to his hair.” The purges continued in less dramatic fashion into the fall of 2012.
Regime instability is the defining feature of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Kim Il-sung, the founder of the country’s horrific system, spent more than two decades preparing his son Kim Jong-il for the Communist world’s first dynastic succession. Kim Jong-il, in comparison, spent about two years preparing his son, and he did not even begin the process until after he had recovered from his 2008 stroke.
Bechtol pegs the beginning of Kim Jong-un’s succession training to sometime early in the following year. The ailing Kim Jong-il speeded up the transition by eliminating officials who stood in his way, and the resulting turbulence eroded support for Jong-un in North Korea’s “cadre society.” Bechtol writes: “Sections of the elite have felt increasingly betrayed because of the large number of purges and executions that have occurred, presumably because of succession issues.” Young Kim may not be able to count on the support of the various factions that make up the regime.
In addition to the tight Kim family circle, the regime is, generally speaking, composed of three elements: the security apparatus, the People’s Army, and the party. All three parts have always fed into the one man—a Kim—in the center. But Kim Jong-un has yet to gain control by placing his supporters in positions of power. More important, he has not had time to learn how to balance and rule an inherently unstable structure. The result is that he is now guided by his aunt, Kim Kyong-Hui, and her husband, Jang Song-Thaek.
We get an insider’s look at the shifting coalitions in Pyongyang. Those behind the scenes are now wielding extraordinary influence. He reports that, last year, powerbrokers did exactly what Kim Jong-un told them to do, but what Kim told them to do “was exactly what they told him he should tell them to do.” In short, Kim was in charge in name only. Kim Jong-nam, the ruler’s eldest brother, is on-record saying that “the existing ruling elite” will keep Jong-un “as a symbolic figure.” To attain real power, Kim Jong-un will have to do what his father did: rely on the nation’s strongest institution, the military. Yet the army is not a monolith. It has, for instance, three separate chains of command to prevent it from moving against the Kim family, and commanders are not allowed to congregate in groups of threes or fours, “lest they plan for factional power.”
The never-ending intrigue and struggle inside the army is a major factor in making the North so volatile, and troubles in the military undercut the prevailing view among Korea-watchers that Kim Jong-un has consolidated power faster than anticipated.
Bechtol’s main contribution—and it is a critical one—is drawing the line from Pyongyang’s ugly succession politics to its belligerent external behavior. He starts with Kim Jong-il’s final years: In a detailed chapter, he discusses the fateful year of 2010, when the North lashed out along the Northern Limit Line, the disputed Yellow Sea border between the two Koreas. In March, a North Korean submarine torpedoed the South Korean navy ship Cheonan, killing 46 sailors. Two soldiers and two civilians died when the North shelled Yeonpyeong Island in November.
These deadly incidents were executed to gain support among Kim Jong-un’s young, hardline “guardian cadres.” Attacks will probably continue, he argues, because provocations along the Northern Limit Line are not only part of the North’s asymmetric tactics to intimidate Seoul, but they help consolidate the succession, which is clearly Kim’s top priority.
Moreover, the author’s general view of the regime—that its institutions and basic ideological framework have not changed and cannot evolve as long as the Kim family rules—leads to his conclusion that Pyongyang will continue its provocative and violent behavior. Kim cannot act peacefully because to do so would undermine the beliefs, developed by his grandfather and father, that hold the ruling group together. This explains why North Korea has remained belligerent no matter who resides in the White House.
Kim Jong-un is bound by the conventions established by his predecessors, which means that he cannot easily divert North Korea from its unsustainable path. In his final years, Kim Jong-il pursued “defiant” policies, especially in his development of nuclear warheads and proliferation of weapons, and the North will continue this aggressive behavior. Because Kim Jong-il refused to change course, Bechtol believes that the country is at risk—especially if Kim Jong-un fails to exert his authority at the center. In that case, the military might splinter, and factional struggle could intensify. Kim Jong-il continued his father’s misguided policies, and Kim Jong-un does not appear strong enough to hold a failing state together.
Gordon G. Chang is the author of Nuclear Showdown: North Korea Takes On the World.