Deciphering North Korea's Leadership Transition

“Last week’s Korean Workers’ Party delegates’ conference in Pyongyang cleared up some longstanding mysteries about North Korea’s leadership transition,” says Asia Society Associate Fellow Charles Armstrong. “Kim Jong Un came out in public for the first time as the heir apparent to his father Kim Jong Il. Indications are however that this is the beginning of the transition process, not the end: based on the younger Kim’s new positions in the military and the party, he is ranked perhaps fifth in the overall North Korean power structure. By contrast, Kim Jong Il ranked second only behind Supreme Leader Kim Il Sung at the last Korean Workers’ Party Congress in October 1980, Kim Jong Il’s official ‘coming out party.’ At that time Kim Jong Il was in his late 30s, while his son is now in his late 20s. Meanwhile Kim Jong Il’s younger sister Kim Kyong Hui was named a four-star general; her husband Jang Song-taek is widely thought to be Kim Jong Il’s de facto second-in-command. Another prominent figure is Vice-Marshall Ri Yong-ho, who was seated between Kim Jong Un and Kim Jong Il in the official group photo of the new party leadership and is Kim Jong Un’s co-vice-chairman of the Party Central Military Affairs Commission.

“What all this suggests is that Kim Kyong Hui, Jang Song-taek, Ri and others will form a caretaker collective leadership over the next several years as Kim Jong Un consolidates power, whether or not Kim Jong Il himself survives to see this process through. Along with other changes in the top positions of the Workers’ Party in such areas as economic and foreign affairs, the message seems clear: the more things change, the more things remain the same.”

Charles is Director of the Center for Korean Research at Columbia University. To arrange an interview, contact the Asia Society communications department at 212-327-9271 or