Dictatorships: All In The Family

July 17, 1994|By RICHARD O'MARA

As the "Great Leader" of North Korea sinks to his reward in that heaven where the ghosts of all good Communists eventually go, the "Dear Leader" emerges from seclusion and rises to his occasion.

Kim Il Sung is dead! Long live Kim Jong Il!

One can almost hear the cheers reverberate among the nervous apparatchiks of Pyongyang. Those of a different mind may be heard from later, or never heard from at all.

North Korea is entering the aftermath, that frequently tumultuous final phase in the careers of powerful leaders of dubious legitimacy. It is a delicate time, a dangerous epilogue.

Kim Il Sung's death raises a plethora of questions to trouble the minds of leaders and policy makers in other capitals, questions about nuclear intentions, international strategies, war or peace on the Korean Peninsula.

But the question that the elite in Pyongyang and experts elsewhere are probably most interested in knowing the answer to is: Will the plan of Kim the elder succeed? Will he establish a Communist dynasty based on blood, and by this device obviate the post-mortem power struggle that is often a part of the succession rite in Communist states?

If he does, he will have been the first to do so. But maybe not the last.

For the most part, and for reasons that are not entirely clear, dynastic politics seem to have had more success in non-democratic states of the non-Communist variety.

It worked in Haiti where, in early 1971, then President-for-Life Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier named his son, Jean-Claude, his successor, then died a few months later. Jean-Claude held power for 15 years. That was one year longer than his father.

Blood succession was implemented successfully in Taiwan. There Chiang Kai-shek, driven to the island by the Communists in 1949, ruled for many years, then imposed his son Chiang Ching-kuo upon the country. Chiang Ching-kuo ran things from 1975, when the old general died, until 1988, the year of his own death.

In Argentina Juan Peron got his wife, Isabel, elected vice president on his coattails. She ascended to the presidency after her husband's death in July 1974 and managed to keep herself in office for almost two years, after which time she was ousted in a coup.

The brevity of her term only attests to the fact that there are no permanent arrangements in politics.

Many of the relevant institutions in North Korean politics lined up last week behind Kim Jong Il. The official media began calling him the "Great Leader." The security forces pledged support. The Communist Party Central Committee was called to its assembly.

Observers in South Korea were predicting the establishment would pull together for Kim Jong Il to prevent anything resembling a power vacuum to form that might suck the hermit state into its chaotic vortex.

If the scheme fails, it will not be for want of effort by the father on behalf of the son. Kim Il Sung has been grooming Kim Jong Il as his successor openly since the early 1970s, appointing him to one high post after another in the regime.

"Late in 1991 he was made supreme commander of the armed forces," said Ralph Clough, a lecturer in Korean and Chinese affairs at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. "Whether you look at the state, party or military, his position is only second to that of his father."

No one is predicting the way things will turn out in North Korea with any certainty at this point. Such predictions are dangerous if policy decisions turn on them. Occasionally they are embarrassing. Experts, even of countries where politics are more transparent than they have ever been in North Korea, have made erroneous predictions.

People familiar with Haitian affairs were almost unanimous in their expectation that "Baby Doc," as he was called, would not survive for long the tooth-and-claw politics of modern Haiti. In fact, Jean-Claude also turned out to be a chip off the old block. He defied all the predictions of his early demise.

The Duvaliers and Kim Il Sung were both dictators of long duration. James McGregor Burns, the American historian who specializes in the analysis of political leadership (his definitive book on the subject is titled "Leadership" ) thinks longevity is a quality, or condition, of great importance.

Of such people who accumulate great lengths of time in power, said Mr. Burns, "the secret of their success may be simpler than we realize. They set up a control system to prevent coups, assassinations and such. Over the years they master the means of propaganda control, state security."

These are the techniques of political perpetuation that dictators impart to their sons or heirs, and they are more crucial to their continuance than anything that has to do with ideology, charisma, party control or any of the other normal expressions of politics and skills of governance.

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