North Korea Faces 2nd Leadership Change In 60 Years

Intelligence analysts are scrambling to assess North Korea's designated leader Kim Jong Un, of whom very little is known. He is untested, and North Korea watchers wonder whether he will be challenged by the military or others in the leadership elite. Similar questions were raised about his father when he took over following the death of Kim Il Sung in 1994.

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This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

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I'm Linda Wertheimer. Steve Inskeep is away. North Korea faces only its second leadership change in its 60-year history. Kim Jong Il, who took over from his father in 1994, died over the weekend. Kim is excepted to be succeeded by his own son, Kim Jong Un. But the younger Kim is very young - only in his 20s, mostly untested. Intelligence analysts are watching to see how his leadership is received by the powerful North Korean military. NPR's Tom Gjelten reports.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: When Korea's leader, Kim Jong Il, announced last year that his chosen successor would be his youngest son Kim Jong Un, U.S. intelligence officials scrambled to learn more about him. They didn't get very far says, Marcus Noland, a North Korea expert at the Peterson Institute of International Economics.

MARCUS NOLAND: The United States government appears to have interviewed every single individual that has ever come in contact with him that is available outside of North Korea, and has tried to build a portrait of him. But I think it's fair to say we really know very, very little about this young man.

GJELTEN: He's about 28. He went to school in Switzerland. He is said to speak English and French and like basketball. But such experience, Noland says, won't necessarily put him in good stead with the North Korean generals and the Communist Party elite who are the power base in that country.

NOLAND: There are people within the regime, perhaps people in the Korean Peoples Army, who are older and more experienced that may not take kindly to taking orders from a relatively young, inexperienced and unproven person.

GJELTEN: Something to remember is that North Korea is not a monolithic state. There are tensions between the military and the party elite. There are generational differences. There are different views about what relationship North Korea should have with the outside world. Sarah McDowall, a Korea analyst with IHS Global Insight, says these different leaders might now be jostling for power.

SARAH MCDOWELL: They may view this as a very good opportunity to fulfill their own personal political ambitions. So it's a question of how astute Kim the younger is at playing this game.

NOLAND: But guess what? In 1994, when Kim Jong Il took over after the death of his father, Kim Il Sung, US intelligence officials were similarly concerned about political instability. After all, Kim the elder was the founder of North Korea. He had ruled the country since 1948 and was considered semi-divine. Art Brown is a former CIA station chief in Seoul.

ART BROWN: What you're seeing here is a replay of 1994, and a lot of people are asking the same questions, whether the new guy - in this case, Kim Jong Un, at that time Kim Jong Il - will be accepted by the military. Will they remain loyal to him? Does he have the necessary background?

GJELTEN: Kim Jong Il - who is referred to in North Korea simply as Dear Leader - was in his fifties when he took over, and he had been groomed for leadership over a 15-year period. Kim's son emerged just last year.

BROWN: The time is a little shorter, but they've been through this before. So the North Koreans have seen this transition.

GJELTEN: Sarah McDowall makes another point about Kim Jong Un's designation: He does have the lineage.

MCDOWELL: He is of the same bloodline as his father, the Dear Leader, and as his grandfather, the founder of North Korea, Kim Il Sung. So he is part of this Kim family dynasty. He looks like his father. He looks like his grandfather, and so to some extent, that should work in his favor.

GJELTEN: Or will it? It's not clear that the Kim name in North Korea still means what it used to. Kim Il Sung was genuinely respected for his World War II achievements, but Kim Jong Il never had the same standing. He did face some resistance when he took over in 1994. There were rumors of assassination attempts and a military rebellion. Several North Korean officers fled to China. His son, Kim Jong Un, could yet encounter similar challenges. Art Brown says the biggest thing the younger Kim may have going for him is that none of his potential opponents has an interest in seeing the regime collapse.

BROWN: That personal self interest will drive this forward without much drama. They don't want to see big upheaval, because quite frankly, they are the ones that are going to lose.

GJELTEN: For that reason, intelligence analysts predict Kim Jong Un's ascension to power will go relatively smoothly in the immediate term. But one analyst who's been following Korea developments for many years says the long-term bases for stability in North Korea have eroded. That does not favor Kim the younger. If the kid doesn't work out in six months, the analyst says, I wouldn't be surprised to see the army ready to back a government change. Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington.

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