Attention Turns To Kim's Apparent Successor

With the death of North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Il, attention has turned to the successor he named before he died. Little is known about his third son, Kim Jong Un. Robert Siegel talks with an author who goes by the penname James Church. Church has written a series of fiction books set in North Korea, and he is a former western intelligence officer who has been to North Korea many times.

LYNN NEARY, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. In this part of the program, we're going to hear about North Korea. Supreme Leader Kim Jong Il died Saturday, and while he named his son, Kim Jong Un, to succeed him, that is not a guarantee that the transition of power will go smoothly. In a moment, we'll hear about the small nuclear arsenal that Kim Jong Il leaves behind, the centerpiece of his political legacy.

But first, to the future and Kim Jong Un. I'm joined by James Church. That's actually a pen name. He's the author of four "Inspector O" novels. Inspector O is a North Korean police detective. And Mr. Church is a former longtime Western intelligence officer who's been to North Korea many times.

Welcome. What can you tell us about Kim Jong Un?

JAMES CHURCH: Sadly, very little. We only really began to know of his existence a few years ago. People found out that he had gone to school, as a teenager, in Switzerland and then after that, we didn't know anything about him until his name popped up about a decade ago after his brother, who was going to be the successor, was pushed aside.

SIEGEL: Kim Jong Un is - at least believed to be - in his late 20s. Is it clear that there will be a direct transition from father to son or, given his relative youth and lack of experience, could there be some interim period, some regency in which senior generals are surrounding him as he is supposedly ruling?

CHURCH: There's probably already a regency group surrounding him, probably has been in place for several years, and working to protect and promote him - and will probably continue for at least a few more years until he gets his feet firmly on the ground.

SIEGEL: What do you make of the fact that Kim Jong Un is supposed to have gone to school in Switzerland for a while?

CHURCH: I don't know what impact that had on his outlook on life at all, really. If he had gone to college in Switzerland, it seems to me it would have had a different, maybe more significant impact.

Equally important to me is the fact that Kim Jong Il wanted his son to be educated in Switzerland. I think that tells us something about Kim Jong Il - and maybe also about how Kim Jong Un sees the possibilities for developing himself, his family, and the future of his country.

SIEGEL: As we look forward to a transition, are there obvious, other powerful figures standing behind Kim Jong Un or around him, who will figure in this process - or do we not know?

CHURCH: I don't think we know any particular figures who could challenge Kim Jong Un. And I think we can assume that Kim Jong Il was very careful to make sure that there was nobody lurking who could be a danger, that he could identify. Nobody can ever be sure that someone won't step out of the shadows, but we don't see anybody right now.

SIEGEL: And is there some understood process here that - is there a party congress that will take place at some point, and a title will be conferred or...

CHURCH: Yes. The North Koreans are pretty punctilious about that sort of thing, and there are three important posts that Kim Jong Un has to take over before he is really, formally in charge: chairman of the Central Military Commission of the Central Committee of the party, general secretary of the Workers' Party of Korea, and the third post would be chairman of the National Defense Commission.

And don't forget, there's going to be a mourning period in which they probably won't want to name him to these posts, and people shouldn't mistake that for problems.

SIEGEL: But that would be a matter of days to weeks, wouldn't it?

CHURCH: It could be as long as a year.

SIEGEL: Really?

CHURCH: Yeah.

SIEGEL: So you would not think something's amiss if a year from now, we were only beginning to see the formal transfer of authority?

CHURCH: As long as the other indications were his appearances were normal, how they portrayed him in the media was normal, I wouldn't be alarmed.

SIEGEL: James Church, thanks a lot for talking with us.

CHURCH: Pleasure.

SIEGEL: Mr. Church - that's a pseudonym; it's a pen name - is the author of the "Inspector O" detective stories, which are set in North Korea. He is, himself, a former Western intelligence officer who for several decades, specialized in Asia.

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