The death of Kim Jung-il and the ascent of his youngest son Kim Jung-un to the Supreme Commander’s role in North Korea highlights the problems of succession in dynastic regimes, particularly those of a non-monarchical stripe. Monarchies have history and tradition to bank on when perpetuating their bloodlines in power. In authoritarian monarchical variants such as absolute monarchies and kingdoms the exercise of political authority is complete and direct, if not by Divine Right. In democratic variants such as constitutional monarchies royal power is circumscribed and symbolic. There are also hybrid systems where royal privilege and power coexist and overlap with mass-based electoral politics, making for what might be called “royalist” democracies (such as in Thailand or the sultanates in Malaysia). In all versions royals are integral members of the national elite.
There are also differences between authoritarian and democratic non-monarchical dynastic regimes, and they have to justify themselves in other ways. Â Democratic political dynasties such as the Gandhi’s in India, Bhutto’s in Pakistan, Kennedy’s in the US or Papandreou’s in Greece reproduce the family lineage within the context of political parties inserted in competitive multi-party systems. Their power is exercised via party control and influence reinforced along ideological lines and buttressed by inter-marriage with economic elites. They can come to dominate national politics when in government and their access to national authority is preferential in any event, but they do not have direct control of the state bureaucracy, courts or security apparatus. In a way, dynastic political families in democratic regimes are akin to organized crime: their influence on power is mostly discrete, dispersed and diffused rather than immediate and direct.
Non-monarchical authoritarian dynastic regimes have more direct control of the state apparatus, including the judiciary and security agencies. They tend to reproduce themselves politically via mass mobilisational parties, and tend to divide into religious and secular variants. Religious variants fuse family bloodlines with clerical authority (say, in the ordained status of fathers, uncles and sons) in pursuit of theological constructions of the proper society. Secular variants mix nationalist and developmentalist rhetoric with charismatic leadership or cults of personality, often with military trappings. In both types the dynastic leadership leads the security apparatus, which is often expanded in size and scope of authority (particularly with regard to internal security). In both sub-types personal ambitions are blurred with political objectives, often to the detriment of the latter.
There can be hybrids of the non-monarchical type that are religious or secular-dominant, where a controlling dynastic family accommodates the interests of smaller dynasties (this happens in clan-based societies).
The issue of succession is problematic for all authoritarian regimes but particularly those of non-monarchical dynastic bent. The more institutionalized the authoritarian regime, the less dynastic it tends to be. Institutionalisation of the regime provides mechanisms for political reproduction beyond bloodlines. This most often happens through the offices of a political party and a strong central state bureaucracy. The more personal dynasties fuse family fortunes with institutionalized political reproduction, the better chances they have of holding on to power. Even then, relatively institutionalized non-monarchical authoritarian dynastic rule such as the Assad regime in Syria, Qaddafi regime in Libya, Hussein regime in Iraq, Somoza regime in Nicaragua, Duvalier regime in Haiti or Trujillo regime in the Dominican Republic have proven susceptible to overthrow when their rule proves too pernicious for both national and international constituencies.
Monarchies can also be overthrown (such as that of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in Iran), although that type of regime change was more prevalent in the 19th century than it is in the 21st. Some monarchs have seen the writing on the wall and willingly accepted a constitutional status stripped of political power, such as in Spain (after the aborted coup of 1981 known as the “Tejerazo”) and more recently in Bhutan (where the last Dragon King voluntarily relinquished absolute status as part of the 2008 Constitutional reform). Other monarchies are under pressure to liberalize, such as in Tonga or (much less so) Brunei.
Add to these scenarios the problems inherent in the universal law of genetic decline and the prospects for long-term dynastic succession have markedly decreased in modern times. Many non-monarchical authoritarian dynasties span two generations but few go further than that. The transition to the grandchildren is the big demarcation point between non-monarchical authoritarian dynastic wannabes and the real thing.
The key to non-monarchical authoritarian dynastic succession is for the family bloc to embed itself within a technocratic yet compliant non-family political, military and economic circle of influence peddlers, who together form a symbiotic relationship based on patronage networks in order to govern for mutual benefit. The more that they can justify their rule on ideological grounds or in the efficient provision of pubic goods, the more they will succeed in securing mass consent to their rule. Although the bloodline becomes increasingly dependent on the entourage, the overall effect is a stable status quo. The Singaporean PAP regime exhibits such traits, although the passage of the Lee dynasty from its founding father to its third generation is increasingly problematic. The Kim regime in North Korea is in reality a military-bureacratic regime with a dynastic core that has now moved into its third generation leadership (the next six months should tell whether Jung-un will consolidate his position). Its vulnerability is its inability to deliver basic necessities to a large portion of its people, which requires ideologically-justified repression and isolation in order to maintain mass acquiescence to its rule.
Dynastic authoritarian regimes also suffer the same divisions between hard-liners and soft-liners that are common to non-dynastic authoritarians such as the military-bureaucratic regimes of Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s or the South Korean and Taiwanese regimes of the 1970s through the 1990s. These divisions on issues of policy and governance are exacerbated when played out within family circles. For example, intrigues of succession and future policy direction within the House of Saud are legendary, but the same can be said to be true about the current North Korean transition or palace politics in Morocco or Kuwait.
The bottom line is that non-monarchical dynastic successions are hard to maintain over time, and increasingly rare. The need for regime continuity is no longer as tied to family fortunes as it once was (even during the Cold War), and the pressures on family-run polities are more myriad and complex than before. Â With the ongoing fall of dynastic regimes in the Middle East amid the general decline of bloodline influence on political power in most of the integrated world (“integrated world” defined as politically independent and economically inter-dependent countries), what we may be seeing in North Korea is the last of a political sub-species: the non-monarchical dynastic authoritarian regime. No matter what happens to Kim Jung-un, at least we can be thankful for that.