a well-revised piece of Node Your Homework

Patrilineal succession has been a staple of monarchic rule for millennia. It appears in democracies as well: witness the rise of George W. Bush. In modern states, however, the direct transfer of power from father to son has been less common, and in fact we have only two present-day examples to draw from: the Kims of North Korea and the Assads of Syria.

My framework for analyzing these leaders concentrates on three poles: military versus civilian rule, flamboyant versus restrained leadership, and similarity versus dissimilarity toward the father. Kim Jong Il and Bashar al Assad differ wildly in these three areas: in fact, their only real similarity is an ideological one, and even that is a tenuous link. While Kim Il Sung and Hafez al Assad were similar rulers, Kim Jong Il and Bashar al Assad are like night and day. This study examines their leadership styles in contrast to their fathers', attempts to discern the factors that caused their divergence, and then explores whether or not these factors can be applied to other political dynasties in different environments.

Case #1: The Kims

Kim Il Sung, the founder and original paramount leader of North Korea, was among the first leftist leaders to bequeath power to his son. While in Vladivostok, weathering World War II, he married a young woman named Kim Chong Suk, and had two sons, Kim Jong Il and Kim Pyong Il. The local Russians fawned over the boys and took to calling Jong Il “Yura”. Pyong Il went on to die in a swimming accident in 1947. Kim’s daughter, Kim Kyong Hui, was born and mysteriously disappeared from records. Chong Suk then died in bed in September of 1949, leaving only Kim Jong Il to continue the family.

Some time after Chong Suk’s death, Kim married a woman named Kim Seong Ae, and had three children. The eldest, Kim Pyong Il, became a diplomat and a major adversary to Kim Jong Il: their rivalry eventually grew so intense that the elder Kim believed that his sons would eventually try to kill each other. However, the first son eventually got priority in the Kim family.

Kim Jong Il was raised in a unique (for lack of a better term) fashion. Growing up in a seven-story palace, he was guarded by an elite corps of 200 bodyguards, who shot innocent intruders on several occasions. He drank and partied heavily during his youth, and reportedly had two young women swim with him at all times. He was eventually selected as Kim Il Sung’s successor at the 1974 conference of the Politburo, and (according to some reports) was operating a fully independent brigade of assassins as early as the mid 1970’s: in late 1975, he was already carrying the moniker of “party center.” What is agreed on by all observers is that by 1980, Kim Jong Il was running North Korea alongside his father. He continued a gradual rise in authority, up to the point where, in 1992, the elder Kim admitted that his son was in charge of all internal affairs in North Korea. Indeed, many analysts believe that Jong Il worked behind his father’s back on several occasions, among them the 1983 bombing of a South Korean conference in Burma and the 1987 bombing of a South Korean airliner. Yet while Kim Il Sung feared his son’s rise to power, he viewed socialism’s greatest flaw as its lack of succession arrangements, and apparently adopted the Confucian tenet of filial obligation into his juche philosophy.

In the summer of 1994, while North Korea was getting ready to welcome South Korean president Kim Young Sam for a conference in the North Korean mountains, Kim Il Sung suffered a massive heart attack. His son took over as general secretary of the Korean Workers' Party.

The contrast between the two Kims is a stark one. According to one commentator, Kim Jong Il's impatience and extemporaneous behavior contrasts markedly with Kim Il Sung's magnanimity and charisma. His penchant for micromanagement far exceeds his father’s, and his personality is wildly emotional. During the elder Kim’s heyday, the younger Kim was perceived as little more than a bland copy of his father, lacking the charisma and revolutionary appeal that helped Il Sung to rally North Koreans. While the father reportedly had a knack for pressing flesh comparable to Ronald Reagan’s, the son is characterized as a manipulator who prefers to work behind the scenes, and even as recently as the 2000 Koreas summit, his backstage maneuvering with South Korean president Kim Dae Jung was the stuff of legend.

In addition to his role as head of the government, Kim also directly controls the Korean People's Army as Marshal. Long before his succession, he was responsible for a number of purges that left the KPA firmly under the ideological control of his father. While the senior Kim’s political power initially came from the army, his reliance on military power waned in his later years: Kim Jong Il reaffirmed North Korea’s militarist background for the world to see. One government report released on the occasion of his birthday in March 2003 is entitled "Let us firmly defend and boundlessly glorify our country and our system under the army-based leadership of the great comrade Kim Jong Il."

To Kim’s credit, there has been some speculation that intelligence on his activities is stilted. One Korea expert writes:

A senior Russian diplomat who sat with Kim during his month-long train trip to Moscow in 2001 told me that Kim admitted he does not like to fly, but said the reason he was traveling by rail was to "see how Russia is changing, something you cannot observe from the air." Kim's questions as his train passed through both industrial and agricultural areas were "perceptive and highly intelligent." A second Russian diplomat told me that upon his return to Pyongyang, Kim sent a note to President Putin that said, "You have made wise choices for your country. Communism will never return to Russia."
However, the recent actions of Kim’s administration, including missile testing, nuclear remobilization, and military maneuvers, appear to confirm the notion that Kim seeks to assert North Korea’s power militarily rather than politically or economically. While the North faces a colossal energy crisis in 2003, with apartment elevators shutting down and home heaters shutting off in subzero temperatures, the government is turning the state into a fortress. For now, the succession of the “Dear Leader” appears to be a failure, throwing North Korea into greater isolation and greater economic turmoil than ever before.

Case #2: The Assads

In contrast to his Korean counterpart, Hafez’s rise to power was quick: he took over the Syrian Ba’ath Party in a bloodless 1970 coup that became known in Syria as the “corrective movement.” Also in contrast to Kim, his personality cult was largely superficial, based on the support of the middle class and at the behest of many hard-line Muslims who opposed the rule of an Alawi leader.

Even overlooking his support of terrorist operations in the Middle East (including the infamous bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut), Assad was an unpopular leader on the world stage. Foreign dignitaries described him as bull-headed, rude, or exasperating: he elicited negative reviews from Jimmy Carter, Warren Christopher, and Bill Clinton.

Assad had a large family. His daughter and four sons were all educated in Syrian universities, and some studied overseas as well. They were carefully raised as puritan students, and lived quiet lives wearing simple uniforms to class, in stark contrast to other Ba’ath party officials, who gave their children sports cars and a license to party. Basil, the eldest son, was groomed to succeed his father starting in the 1980’s. Bashar, the second-oldest, went to Britain to study ophthalmology, while the other sons followed their own pursuits: Mahir went to business school and Majd studied engineering.

Everything changed in 1994, when Basil died in a freak car accident. In the wake of his death, Ba’ath ideologues began pushing Bashar to take over from his father. This was a dramatic change for Bashar, who was twenty-eight at the time: he had no following in the government or the military before the death of his brother. After the death of Hafez in 2000, Bashar ran unopposed for the presidency and garnered 97.29% of the popular vote. His administration was rubber-stamped by the Syrian parliament: the Ba’ath Party essentially gave him a blank check to rule the country. The only brief opposition to Bashar’s rule came from his uncle, Rifaat, who had contested Hafez’s presidency as well.

At first, pundits speculated that Dr. Assad’s new administration would bring much-needed reforms to Syria. “Success,” The Economist stated, “could mean not only an Israeli-Syrian peace, but the re-emergence of a Syria that is stable, and not because of fear.” Indeed, Bashar was a young, unmarried, well-educated man said to resemble a doctor more than a world leader: one American journalist claimed that propaganda photos of Assad in fatigues were analogous to photos of Michael Dukakis in a tank, and an American National Council of Churches official described Bashar as a "well-informed, mature, polished head of state" who "really related to the daily life of the people."

Looking from within Syria, it almost appears as if wherever the father erred, the son compensated. Hafez al Assad’s personality cult was pushed by the state but seriously mistrusted by the people: one of Bashar’s first moves was to take down statues, posters, and other artifacts of this era. State control over discourse has been loosened as well. Pro-Israeli theater is now permitted in Damascus, one of several glasnost-style policies Assad has allowed: he has also permitted the development of a very critical independent media. Still, however, his administration blocks any political movements seen as threatening to the state, and despite the closings of political prisons in recent years, continues to imprison pro-democracy activists.

The economic reforms brought by Assad are remarkable in themselves. Syria’s state-owned companies were revealed to be operating at a net loss of $1.6 billion—ten percent of the Syrian GDP. State media under the new administration have spoken out against this situation, and foreign investment laws have been relaxed to allow firms up to 49% foreign ownership, as well as private banks and other financial institutions. The Syrian pound was pegged to the U.S. dollar by the new administration, and corrupt officials were weeded out of the administration.

While Bashar’s economic and social reforms have been positive, his foreign policy has turned out to be more hawkish than his father’s. Even at his father’s funeral, he gave most of his time to Iran’s Mohammed Khatami and Hizbullah’s Hasan Nasrallah, ignoring Israeli and Palestinian leaders and only granting Madeline Albright a brief audience. Later, he proposed an Arab Defense Agreement, a collective security arrangement between all Arab nations that would allow for mutual defense in case of an attack. Syrian actions in the wake of the American invasion of Iraq, including threats of terrorism and harboring of Iraqi fugitives, also indicate that Assad’s policy toward Israel and the United States is not changing significantly.

Rhetoric aside, Assad has done much to liberalize the economy and social structure of Syria, and as such, his succession can be seen as at least a partial success. Whereas Kim Jong Il has only hastened North Korea’s slide into obscurity, Bashar al-Asad has brought Syria back as a credible player in the international arena.

So What's The Deal?

Several more states anticipate a patrilineal succession in the near future. Saudi Arabia’s King Fahd and Libya’s Muammar Qadaffi are both expected to be succeeded by their sons soon, and preparations are already underway in both countries. Before his removal from power, Saddam Hussein was also planning to bequeath Iraq to his son. Obviously, other leaders seek to follow in the footsteps of Kim and Asad. The pertinent question then is: how does a leader ensure the stability of their son’s regime? Syria and North Korea, engaged in similar conflicts with similar benefactors, went in two totally opposite directions. We can glean the following key differences from the examples of Kim Jong Il and Bashar al Assad:
  1. The most obvious difference, at least in the historical record, is that Kim was being prepared for his eventual rule from an early age as a political apprentice to his father. Assad, on the other hand, received minimal preparation until he had already grown up as an independent civilian.
  2. Kim was very attached to his father, and was spoiled in return. Asad’s father was aloof from the family, and made his children lead simple lives in simple uniforms. Psychologist Diana Baumrind would classify Kim Il Sung as an “indulgent” father, and would expect an undemanding but attentive parent to produce a disobedient, demanding, and inattentive child: characteristics that seem to be personified by Kim Jong Il. The aloof Hafez al Assad, however, would be classified as an “authoritarian” father, whose progeny would exhibit a more subdued, intense, and malleable personality, of the type characterized by Bashar al-Asad.
  3. Kim was raised Korean through and through, and therefore had difficulty engaging other nations. Assad was educated in Britain and speaks fluent Arabic, English and French.
The implications for leaders seeking to elevate their sons are clear. While point 1 is admittedly difficult to control, points 2 and 3 can be controlled relatively easily. Baumrind believes that a parent with the demanding personality of Asad and the attentive personality of Kim (an “authoritative” parent) will produce children most suitable for leadership: while the attention can be compromised in a pinch (as it was for Asad), the demanding cannot. Of course, many leaders have heeded point 3 and have sent their children off for global educations: King Abdullah II of Jordan is a good example.

What If I'm Not Quite A Dictator... Just Close?

So far, we have seen the effects of patrilineal succession when it is direct and executed in an authoritarian environment. What if it is indirect? Moreover, can this framework be extended to actors in non-authoritarian states—for example, George W. Bush?

Bush developed an independent political career from his father’s, and never had much of an international education. However, his relationship with his father appears to be attentive, as they still “talk family, dogs and how the bass are doing in the Crawford pond,” while his relationship with his mother smacks of demanding parenting (according to historian David McCullough, "she's the one who says, 'You'd better shape up, pal, or you're going to hear from me'”). It is difficult to make a decisive argument about the leadership ability of Bush, but he is clearly no Kim Jong Il: like Asad, his patterns of humbuggery appear to confine themselves to rhetoric.

What about America’s most famous political family, the Kennedys? Joseph Kennedy once said that "None of my children give a damn about business. The only thing that matters is family. I tell them that when they end this life, if they can count their friends on one hand, they will be lucky." While the Kennedy family’s social mishaps are the stuff of legend, the attitude of Joe and Rose clearly implies authoritative parenting that would predict charismatic and capable children suitable, at least in capability, for political leadership.


Kings and queens are largely the stuff of history, but familial succession is still an important factor in shaping the makeup of political leadership worldwide, both in highly authoritarian states and in highly democratic states. Political families seeking to eventually elevate their offspring would do well to heed the paradigms illustrated by Kim, Assad, and the successes and failures of other dynasties:
  • Keep political apprenticeship to a minimum.
  • Keep a global perspective.
  • Be a parent: show authority and show attention.
A political family can produce productive leaders, or it can produce terrible leaders. The fate of any dynasty is up to its leadership, and a leader desiring a dynasty should be prepared to work diligently toward the preparation of their successor.

(Although I didn't say so in the original paper, these are probably good strategies to follow if you have kids, period.)

Want to know more? Suh Dae Sook's Kim Il Sung: The North Korean Leader and Don Oberdorfer's The Two Koreas paint an excellent picture of the Kim family, while Patrick Seale's Asad of Syria gives some remarkable insight on the Assads. Baumrind's theory, the basis of my research, was covered in Adolescence 3:11, pages 255-272.

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