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The family grip on power in North Korea and the Philippines

AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon
A TV screen shows an image of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and his daughter during a news program at the Seoul Railway Station in South Korea on Nov. 19, 2022. Kim’s wife and daughter accompanied him to a test of the Hwasong 17 missile, the girl’s first public appearance.

In Asia’s ruling dynasties, family heritage is all-important. We have had no better proof than in the past few days, when dynastic heirs and maybe an heir-apparent to national power were on full display in two very different countries on the radar screens of analysts everywhere.

First, there was North Korea. What could have been cuter than big, bad dictator Kim Jong Un holding the hand of his daughter, looking to be maybe 10 or so, at the launch of his latest, greatest missile, a Hwasong 17. He looked as though he were escorting her to a fireworks show as he showed the kid the missile that was about to go whooshing high into the heavens in a display intended to prove he really could fire one as far as Washington, D.C. if he had a mind to — and if his engineers have figured out how to affix a nuclear warhead to the darn thing.

In South Korea, viewers were more impressed by the child’s appearance than by the possibility that she might be in line to succeed her father. “She looks just like her father,” was the immediate response of one South Korean woman. “She’s so chubby.” Yes, no doubt about it, like father, like daughter, when it comes to stature, though another Korean remarked that she has “the eyes of her mother,” Ri Sol Ju, seen with her and her father as they appeared before a crowd of cheering Korean military officers at the launch site.

“Crazy,” was the response of one Korean, amazed at the festive atmosphere that Daddy Kim made of the occasion, but the message was serious. Here was his darling daughter, his middle child, sister of older and younger brothers, whom he had elevated to prominence ahead of her siblings as living proof that she’s the chosen one. But who is she? We have to thank Chicago Bulls one-time star Dennis Rodman, after visiting Pyongyang and then Kim’s palatial second home in or near the east coast port of Wonsan, for telling us he had held the “baby girl” in his arms and her name is Ju Ae, a detail Kim’s state media has yet to confirm.

If it’s a little early to conclude she is really in the line of succession, why did her father not invite her two brothers? Again the North Korean state media hasn’t said a word about either of them, but the older brother should be 12 or 13. Is he not showing the leadership possibilities that Kim may perceive in Ju Ae? Certainly, power does not have to go to the oldest offspring. Kim has had two older brothers — he ordered the assassination of the oldest, half-brother Kim Jong Nam, at the airport in Kuala Lumpur in 2017, wanting to stamp out a perceived claimant to his job. The other one, Kim Jong Chol, born of the same mother, reportedly lives a reclusive life in Pyongyang, playing his guitar and listening to the music of Eric Clapton, whose concerts he attended some years ago.

There’s no question, though, about who would lead the Marcos dynasty in the Philippines. Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos, having been elected president in May, is following in the footsteps of his father, Ferdinand Marcos Sr., who exercised dictatorial power for 18 years until his overthrow in the “People Power Revolution” of 1985-1986.

The family grip on power would appear to have been totally undermined after Marcos, with his profligate wife Imelda, Bongbong and his two sisters, plus assorted billionaire cronies, were flown to exile in Hawaii aboard two U.S. Air Force planes from Clark Air Base north of Manila. Marcos died in Hawaii but Imelda made sure the dynasty survived. She, Bongbong and his sisters eventually returned to the wellspring of Marcos family power, Ilocos Norte province far north of Manila, where they rebuilt their political base.

Who would believe that the U.S., having played a major role in bringing about the ouster of Marcos Sr., is now evidently paying obeisance to Bongbong? The sight of Vice President Kamala Harris impressing him with the commitment of Washington to the Philippine-American alliance no doubt would have been a shock to the U.S. officials who facilitated the precipitous departure of the Marcos clan from the seat of power in Manila’s Malacanang Palace in 1986. The past was obliterated, forgotten, or at least not a matter for discussion while Harris sought to patch up frayed ties.

Much as Bongbong would like to remain somewhat standoffish about plunging right back into bed with the Americans, the Philippines and the U.S. share a common concern about China. They both are upset about China under President Xi Jinping claiming China’s rule over the South China Sea, which laps up on the shores of the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei, and they want China to stop building bases on tiny islets out there. 

Incredibly, Harris was welcomed aboard a Philippine coast guard vessel at a base on the strategic island of Palawan, facing the South China Sea, where she challenged China after reassuring Bongbong that Washington, in keeping with its alliance with the Philippines, would surely respond if China attacked Philippine vessels.

Carlos Conde, a longtime correspondent who is in charge of Human Rights Watch in the Philippines, summarized the bond between the U.S. and the Philippines after Bongbong’s predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte, scorned the relationship during his presidency while cozying up to China’s Xi.

“Bottom line for Marcos,” Conde told me, “now is a great opportunity to rehabilitate the Marcos name, protect their interests (and riches), ensure the longevity of their dynasty.” And bottom line for the U.S.: “After the tumultuous years of Duterte, we finally have somebody — again — that we can dance with.”

All of which goes to prove, in tightly-controlled North Korea, superficially a communist country but really a dynastic dictatorship, as in crime-infested Philippines, superficially a democracy but really a wild kleptocracy, power goes from generation to generation, all within the ruling families. Idealogues may talk about freedom and human rights, but no one doubts who’s calling the shots.

Donald Kirk has been a journalist for more than 60 years, focusing much of his career on conflict in Asia and the Middle East, including as a correspondent for the Washington Star and Chicago Tribune. He currently is a freelance correspondent covering North and South Korea. He is the author of several books about Asian affairs.

Tags Dennis Rodman Ferdinand Marcos Jr. Kim dynasty Kim Jong Nam Kim Jong Un Kim Jong Un North Korea Philippines

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