Wanted: A Babysitter For N. Korea's New Leader

People who keep watch over North Korea's isolated regime say that it's leader, Kim Jong Il, needs two things: He needs a successor, and someone to watch after his successor. Host Scott Simon talks about the political situation in North Korea with Gordon Flake, executive director of the Mansfield Foundation.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

People who keep watch over North Korea's isolated regime say that Kim Jong Il needs two things. He needs a successor and someone to watch after his successor.

Kim is reportedly in poor health, sick with diabetes and depression, may not have long to live. It is widely believed that he wants his youngest son, Kim Jong Eun, to become leader when he dies. But Eun is not yet 30 years old. So this has raised a question for Korea watchers: Who will essentially babysit the next North Korean leader?

We're joined in our studios now by Gordon Flake.�He's the executive director of the Mansfield Foundation, a group committed to improving U.S.-Asia relations.

Mr. Flake, thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. GORDON FLAKE (Mansfield Foundation): I'm delighted to be here. Thank you.

SIMON: And in recent months there's one name that's been popping up, right?

Mr. FLAKE: Well, certainly. It's the name of Jang Song Taek, the brother-in-law of the current leader, Kim Jong-il, the uncle of Kim Jong Eun.

SIMON: And he's in his mid-60s, right?

Mr. FLAKE: He is. He's, most important, he was recently appointed to the position of vice chairman of the National Defense Commission. And it's that appointment or that ascension, coupled with his relationship with the Kim family, that has led to a lot of the speculation about his role.

SIMON: So what do we know about him?

Mr. FLAKE: Well, he actually has a long and storied history. He's basically a bureaucrat in the North Korean system. In the early 1990s he was a leader of the group that many people thought would be the technocrats, the economic reformers. In fact, he visited South Korea. After that visit to South Korea in the 1990s, however, he was exiled up into the far northeastern part of the country and for a period of time rehabilitated. Again, in the early part of -the past decade, I guess the '00s, he was growing again in stature and influence, and with that rising attention he was kind of, got of the picture for about two or three years, where there was no mention of him in North Korean media or propaganda. And once again, with the need for a mentor of sorts to the succession process, his name has certainly been on the rise in recent months.

MARTIN: Why would he be interested in any way mentoring Kim Jong Eun?

Mr. FLAKE: Well, we honestly dont know that he is. I must say, in all the speculation, and that's all it is, is speculation, there has been no formal anointing of Kim Jong Eun. There's actually been no formal mention of Kim Jong Eun in the North Korean media itself yet. And certainly no mention of a mentor role between Jang Song Taek, the uncle, and Kim Jong Eun.

SIMON: I mean, I say this with respect, I suddenly wonder why we booked an interview when in fact...

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: ...we dont know much.

Mr. FLAKE: We really dont. And, in fact, the one thing we do know is that the health crisis that Kim Jong-il is going through, the stroke that he suffered in August of 2008, and all the concerns surrounding that and his pending mortality, has led to a remarkable volatility that I have never seen in North Korea.

SIMON: Gordon Flake, executive director of the Mansfield Foundation, thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. FLAKE: My great pleasure.

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