Foreign Policy: The Rise of Kim Jong-Un

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Kim Jong Il

hide captionNext to rule? Recent reports suggest a new Kim is on tap to lead North Korea. But who is he?

Figuring out just who will rule North Korea when Kim Jong Il exits the scene has become something of a global parlor game.

In January 2009, the South Korean news agency, Yonhap, reported that Kim Jong Il's third and youngest son, Kim Jong-un, had been nominated to succeed his father "around" Jan. 8, the younger Kim's birthday. Although there was no corroborating information from the North Korean media (and there still is none), Yonhap's articles cited sources with close ties to the North Korean leadership. Then in April, Yonhap reported that Kim Jong-un had been appointed to the National Defense Commission (NDC) in an unnamed capacity. Whether any of this is true is debatable, but for those of us who read the tea leaves in Pyongyang for a living, the growing focus on the third son as the successor appears to be reaching a critical mass.

The South Korean and Japanese media began reporting on Kim Jong-un in 2003 and have done so sporadically ever since. Focused on the succession issue, their reports tend to be highly speculative and often contradictory.

According to Kim Jong Il's former personal chef, Kim Jong-un was born in 1983 or 1984 to Kim's third wife, Ko Hyong-hui, and is allegedly his father's favorite son. Unlike his brother Kim Jong-chol, Kim Jong-un has a more forthright character and, some sources say, has exhibited leadership skills. He is rumored to have studied at the International School of Berne in Guemligen, Switzerland. Upon returning to North Korea sometime after 2000, his studies continued, most likely at Kim Il Sung Military University. There are varying reports that he speaks German, French, and English.

Kim Jong-un's career background has been just as opaque. In 2004, reports began to surface that he and brother Kim Jong-chol were accompanying their father on inspections of military installations. In 2007, a flurry of reports emerged placing the third son in either the Korean Workers' Party's (KWP's) powerful Organization Guidance Department, where Kim Jong Il began his career in 1964, or the Korean People's Army's influential General Political Bureau. Both of these bodies are charged with surveillance and monitoring of the regime's powerful party, military, and security bodies.

There are also reports that Kim Jong-un may share some of the ailments of his father, such as diabetes, and might have been in a car accident last year. Therefore, his health is in question.

In the months after Kim Jong Il's apparent stroke in August 2008, the South Korean media began to speculate on succession. According to their articles, Kim Jong-un had the support of his father's current wife, Kim Ok, and the first vice director of the Organization Guidance Department, Yi Je-kang. Kim Jong Il's brother-in-law, Jang Song-taek (who is married to Kim's sister, Kim Kyong-hui), was rumored to be the key backer of Kim's oldest son, Kim Jong-nam, who has spent most of his time outside North Korea since he was caught in 2001 by Japanese officials while to trying sneak into Japan on a false passport.

In February 2009, Yonhap reported that Jang (director of the KWP's Administrative Department, which oversees much of North Korea's security apparatus) had shifted his support to Kim Jong-un in light of Kim Jong Il's "special affection" for his third son and out of consideration for his own future political power. According to senior North Korean defectors in South Korea, Jang reached a deal with Kim Jong Il. Worried about being purged, as he was in 2004 for becoming too powerful within the regime, Jang agreed to throw his support behind Kim Jong-un. In return, Kim Jong Il has allowed Jang to engineer the succession by placing his allies in key posts throughout the regime. Many of the recent key appointments allegedly have Jang's backing. The new chief of the general staff, Yi Yong-ho, is allegedly close to Jang, as is the new minister of the People's Armed Forces.

The development of a collective leadership centered on Jang appears to have emerged out of the recent meeting of the Supreme People's Assembly. Some analysts point to the NDC, of which Kim Jong-un is now reportedly a member, as the platform through which the succession will be carried out, much as the KWP was Kim Jong Il's platform. In addition to Jang, the NDC is now populated with powerful military and security officials with ties to Jang, including vice chairmen Kim Yong-jun and O Kuk-yol and members Chu Sang-song (minister of public security) and U Tong-juk (deputy director of the State Security Department). Many think this collective leadership, which probably extends beyond the NDC to the party as well, will provide the support network for a dynastic succession. In this scenario, Kim Jong-un would be the public face of North Korea, while Jang led behind the scenes.

When the succession will be made public is a critical question. Some Pyongyang watchers speculate that it will be attached to an auspicious date in North Korean history. Many point to April 2012, which would mark the 100th anniversary of Kim Il Sung's birth. Of course, the health of Kim Jong Il, which has appeared to worsen in recent months, will probably drive the timing of this announcement.

What would the post-Kim Jong Il era mean for the stability of North Korea? Although few experts foresee a collapse of the regime, many wonder whether the senior leadership will hold together or fall prey to factionalism. Jang's agreement to support Kim Jong-un apparently unifies the key individuals within the regime. For this reason, many Pyongyang watchers think the succession is already a done deal.

Whether this governing structure will last is a big question. North Korea, after all, does not have a history of collective leadership. If the reports to date are accurate, it makes sense that Kim Jong Il has tried to build the collective leadership around someone within his family. But, forecasting on what will happen after Kim Jong Il is highly speculative. Whether Jang will continue to support Kim Jong-un, shift his allegiance back to Kim Jong-nam, or move to take the leadership mantle for himself, which could lead to an outright power struggle, is anyone's guess. Rest assured, we'll be watching closely.

Ken E. Gause is senior analyst at CNA, a nonprofit think tank in Alexandria, Va., and director of its Foreign Leadership Studies Program. He has studied the North Korean regime for two decades.

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