With the death of Kim Jong-il and accession of his son Kim Jong-un, these are dodgy days in North Korea. It all goes back to Jong-il’s father Kim Il-sung, who became its first dictator in 1948 and also invented North Korea’s professional army. The first Roman emperor Augustus provides the model for what is happening.
Since Rome had never had an emperor before, the big question became: what happened when the long-lived Augustus died? Augustus was all too aware of the problem and, with no male offspring of his own, could only watch aghast as, one by one, his personal choices dropped off the perch. According to Tacitus, it was all down to his wife Livia. She was determined that her less than enthusiastic son Tiberius by her first husband should succeed, but the ailing Augustus turned at the last minute to a previously unfavoured grandson. Livia stepped in. She summoned Tiberius back from his post in the Balkans, sealed the roads round the palace, posted hopeful messages and then announced Augustus was dead and Tiberius emperor. The grandson was immediately murdered. Job done. The point is this: Il-sung was dictator till 1994. He faced exactly the same question: would the job stay in the family? But at least Jong-il was grown up and knew what was entailed. Jong-un is a dim, untested stripling in a still newish line of descent.
Which is where the military comes in. Like Il-sung, Augustus developed Rome’s first, professional, career-based army and put himself at the head of it, determined that there would be no more private armies of the sort that destroyed the Republic. So Rome became, effectively, a military dictatorship. But that still left the question: would the army remain loyal to the man who took over on Augustus’ death? In fact Balkan and Rhine armies both mutinied, looking for better terms of service. No doubt the North Korean Army and its generals are equally keen to make a persuasive point to Jong-un’s team in a poverty-stricken country.
Tiberius likened being emperor to a man holding a wolf by the ears. Doubtless Jong-un would see the point.