The Kims Aren’t Just Looking at Things: What Leadership Events Can Tell Us About North Korean Politics

Authors: Edward Goldring and Peter Ward


This policy paper was published in collaboration with The Wilson Center Hyundai Motor-Korea Foundation Center for Korean History and Public Policy and the National Committee on North Korea as a part of the "Understanding North Korea" roundtable series. This paper reflects the views of the author alone and not those of the National Committee on North Korea, the Wilson Center, or any other organizations.

The North Korean regime was not supposed to survive a second leader succession. Numerous North Korea observers expected the regime to fail with the accession of the 27-year-old Kim Jong Un. Such expectations were reasonable since very few non-monarchical regimes have pulled off consecutive hereditary successions. Kim Jong Un has therefore defied expectations by not just surviving, but consolidating power.

So how did the North Korean regime pull off its second leader succession? Fortunately, events preceding Kim’s succession in 2011 provide useful insights about future potential succession issues in North Korea, and elite politics in North Korea more generally. To understand how Kim Jong Il enabled his son’s succession and consolidation, we therefore need to study how he manipulated intra-elite power relations within the regime.

The authors address this topic by analyzing how Kim Jong Il manipulated elites through invitations to public leadership events. Kim Jong Il significantly increased the prominence of civilians within the regime through these events. This facilitated Kim Jong Un’s succession by enabling him to implement his preferred policies and preventing the military acting as a veto-player who could act against his wishes or even turn the young leader into their puppet. The final section examines the implications of the paper's findings for contemporary North Korean leadership politics.

About the Authors

Edward Goldring is a Lecturer (Assistant Professor) in the Department of Politics at the University of York. He studies authoritarian politics, mainly from a global comparative perspective but sometimes focuses especially on North Korea. His book manuscript, Purges: A Dictator’s Fight to Survive, examines the causes of elite purges and their effects on autocratic survival. Goldring’s work has been published or is forthcoming in journals including British Journal of Political Science, Comparative Political Studies, International Studies Quarterly, Journal of Peace Research, and Democratization.

Peter Ward is a writer and researcher focusing on the North Korean economy and Korean migration issues. He is a PhD candidate at the University of Vienna and a contributor to NK Pro. His PhD dissertation concerns North Korea’s military, its role in the North Korean economy, and the impact that this role has on civil-military relations. His work has been published at Asian Perspective, Cities, Communist and Post-Communist Studies, International Migration, Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, and Journal of East Asian Studies.

This paper reflects the views of the authors alone and not those of the National Committee on North Korea, the Wilson Center, or any other organizations.