Jung Yeon-je/AFP/Getty Images
South Korean protesters in Seoul shout slogans beside pictures of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il and a boy believed to be the leader's third son, Kim Jong Un, during a Feb. 19 rally denouncing North Korea's missile threat. Media reports indicate that Kim Jong Un has been designated as his father's heir.
South Korean protesters in Seoul shout slogans beside pictures of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il and a boy believed to be the leader's third son, Kim Jong Un, during a Feb. 19 rally denouncing North Korea's missile threat. Media reports indicate that Kim Jong Un has been designated as his father's heir. Jung Yeon-je/AFP/Getty Images
One of the world's last political dynasties may have just settled on an heir apparent. News reports say that North Korea's leader Kim Jong Il has picked his third son to succeed him.
North Korean political and military officials were informed that Kim Jong Un, in his mid-20s, has been anointed to succeed his father, according to reports in South Korea's media.
North Korea leadership-watching is a murky business, full of unconfirmed reports and questionable sourcing. Jong Un is believed to have been educated in Switzerland, where he learned to ski, and to speak English, French and German.
There are few countries left where a ruler can say he has the right to rule because his father and grandfather did.
But Kim Jae-bum, professor emeritus at the Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security in Seoul says that's the prevailing logic in Pyongyang.
"This is a kind of inherited philosophy, that the 'Great Leader' [Kim Il Sung] founded the country and the party, and his son was an heir, so that the third generation has a kind of legitimacy," Kim says.
Pledge Of Loyalty
South Korean newspapers quoted lawmakers briefed by intelligence officials Tuesday. They said that following last week's nuclear test, Pyongyang ordered officials to pledge loyalty to Jong Un, third son of the "Dear Leader" Kim Jong Il and grandson of the "Great Leader" Kim Il Sung.
Kim, the South Korean professor, says the orders seem to be having an effect.
"The military are very anxious about competing among themselves to show their loyalty to the family," he says.
Experts differ on the question of whether the succession issue is behind North Korea's recent spate of nuclear and missile tests.
According to Kenji Fujimoto, the pen name of a Japanese man who wrote a book about his stint as the Kim family's personal sushi chef, Kim Jong Il chose his third son because he felt his eldest son was unreliable and that his second son was too effeminate.
Too Inexperienced For The Job
The problem is that in his mid-20s, Jong Un is too inexperienced compared with his father, says Stanford University's Daniel Sneider, an expert on North and South Korea.
"Kim Jong Il had a long period of time serving in senior positions in the party apparatus, in the government apparatus, so he established his legitimacy as a successor over a period of time," Sneider says.
But the elder Kim made arrangements for this in April, getting his son onto the National Defense Commission. This de facto ruling council is headed by Chang Song Taek, Kim Jong Il's brother-in-law, who could serve as a regent until the young Kim matures.
When Kim Jong Il suffered a stroke last summer, reports suggested that North Korea's government was in chaos. But no one is suggesting that now, Sneider says.
"There's no evidence that anyone's defying his authority, and although there's a lot of talk about the military and the power of the military, it's very clearly subordinate to him," he says. "And I think that as long as he's around, and as long as he's able to exercise power, then he can control this process."