All eyes are now on Kim Jong-un

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All eyes are now on Kim Jong-un

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Kim Jong-un, right, the designated successor to his father Kim Jong-il, left, watches a parade in Pyongyang in October 2010. [REUTERS/YONHAP]

The world’s attention will soon turn to how Kim Jong-il’s son and successor, Kim Jong-un, will lead his impoverished country despite his lack of governing experience and his short time being groomed.

In yesterday’s rare special broadcast to announce his father’s death, the North’s official broadcaster was clear about Kim Jong-un’s formal designation as the country’s next leader.

“At the forefront of our revolution, there is our comrade Kim Jong-un standing as the great successor to our juche [self-reliance] ideology and the leader of our party, army and people,” the female news announcer said. “Under the guidance of comrade Kim Jong-un, we should fight more aggressively for a new, great victory of juche revolution, changing our sadness into power and courage.”

Who the new leader’s allies will be is a major question. The Korean Central News Agency released a list of 232 names for the national funeral committee for Kim Jong-il. At the top of the list was Kim Jong-un, followed by Kim Yong-nam, the nominal head of state; Premier Choe Yong-rim; Ri Yong-ho, Pyongyang’s chief delegate to the six-party talks; and Kim Yong-chun, North Korea’s defense chief.

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Among the list were Kim Kyong-hui, the late leader’s younger sister, and her husband Jang Song-thaek, vice chairman of the National Defense Commission. Jang was considered to be one of Jong-il’s closest aides and was believed to have strongly advocated a third-generation succession when he was felled by a stroke in 2008. Sources say that Jang also has a close relationship with the late dictator’s son, who reportedly calls him “uncle” despite Kim Jong-un’s status.

Kim Jong-il’s younger sister, Kyong-hui, rumored to have been an alcoholic, accompanied the late leader on most field guidance trips since 2008. Experts say they believe her and her husband, Jang, will act as guardians for the new leader.

Another important figure in Jong-un’s ascension as North Korea’s leader is Ri Yong-ho, a key military official in the North and the country’s chief delegate to the six-party talks, who is on the list. Analysts predict that Kim Jong-il would have asked his aides to place Ri close to his youngest son so that he could learn from him his deep knowledge of the country’s military.

According to high-ranking North Korean defectors, O Kuk-ryol, an 80-year-old general, is also a notable presence on the list of the funeral committee, as a long-time military official since Kim Jong-il was inaugurated.

“In an effort to buy support from military officials, Kim Jong-il gifted luxury cars or offered promotions early in the succession period,” An Chan-il, a defector-turned-scholar, said. “The key in a succession is how the military, which is the core of North Korean power, will react to the new leader.”

Kim Jong-il’s two other sons, Jong-nam and Jong-chol, were excluded from the list. But analysts have kept their eyes on the eldest son, Jong-nam, after he criticized his father’s third-generation succession plan in an interview with foreign media in 2010, causing speculation that he could become an obstacle for his brother, Jong-un. The middle son has apparently been taken out of consideration for succeeding his father because of health problems related to his hormones.

Born in 1984 to the “dear leader” and his third wife, Ko Young-hee, a ballerina thought to be Jong-il’s favorite wife who died in 2004, Kim Jong-un grew up in Pyongyang until he entered international school in Switzerland at the age of 16. He then studied at Kim Il Sung National War College from 2002 to 2007.

In January 2009, Kim Jong-un was named heir apparent, officially setting into motion the only third-generation hereditary succession in the communist world. The son, in his late 20s, made his first public appearance in September 2010 at a Workers’ Party convention, a day after the party named him vice chairman of the Central Military Commission and a member of the party’s Central Committee.

However, experts have pointed out that North Korea’s new leader may not have had the time to lay the groundwork needed for support from the military and party, unlike his father who had 20 years to prepare before Kim Il Sung’s death in 1994. Jong-un, in contrast, has only two years since his father’s stroke in 2008.

Hwang Jang-yop, former secretary of the Workers’ Party who defected to the South and died in 2010, wrote, “Up until 1986, Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong-il co-led the country, but after then, Jong-il ruled North Korea by himself,” implying that there was no power vacuum when Kim Jong-il took power.

“For three years after founder Kim Il Sung died, there was not much disorder detected in the North,” Jeon Hyeon-jun, a researcher at the Korea Institute for National Unification, said. “However, as succession is not that stabilized now, internal turmoil in the North Korean regime could possibly happen.”


By Kim Hee-jin [heejin@joongang.co.kr]

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