Tough Transition Awaits N. Korean Heir-Apparent

South Korean news shows image of Kim Jong Un, youngest son of North Korea's current leader i i

hide captionSouth Koreans at the Seoul Railway Station watch Tuesday as a TV news program shows a portrait of Kim Jong Un. The youngest son of North Korea's leader Kim Jong Il is being groomed as the country's next leader, but little is known about him.

Ahn Young-joon/AP
South Korean news shows image of Kim Jong Un, youngest son of North Korea's current leader

South Koreans at the Seoul Railway Station watch Tuesday as a TV news program shows a portrait of Kim Jong Un. The youngest son of North Korea's leader Kim Jong Il is being groomed as the country's next leader, but little is known about him.

Ahn Young-joon/AP

North Korea has now done what many North Korean watchers expected: It has put the third son of Kim Jong Il on a path to be the nation's next leader.

The official Korean Central News Agency said early Wednesday in Pyongyang that Kim Jong Un was named vice chairman of the powerful Central Military Commission of the country's ruling Workers' Party. It would be the first known political post for Kim Jong Il's youngest son — and a sign widely seen as confirmation that he will take over from his father.

Earlier, the North Korean leader promoted his son to four-star general.

Little is known about Kim Jong Un. But it's safe to say he is young, inexperienced, and likely to face some very difficult challenges once he takes over from his father.

It's not just the outside world that doesn't know much about Kim Jong Un. The North Korean public has largely been in the dark about him as well, says David Kang, a North Korea specialist at the University of Southern California.

"We think they have begun to get information about Kim Jong Un, and the newspapers are beginning to refer to him as 'The Young General.' So it won't come as a complete surprise because the media, the propaganda arm of the North Korean regime, is beginning to talk about this guy," Kang says.

'Chip Off The Old Block'

But so far, no biography, official or otherwise, has surfaced. There was one book about the Kim family written by an outsider — Kim Jong Il's Japanese chef. David Straub, a former State Department specialist on North Korea who is now at Stanford, says that book includes some observations about the younger Kim.

"And [the author] says that Kim Jong Un is a chip off the old block, very much like his father: aggressive, ambitious, creative, ruthless," Straub says.

It is believed that Kim Jong Un is 27 years old. Nothing is known of his childhood. But it is known that he attended high school for two years in Berne, Switzerland. It is not at all clear that either his classmates or the officials at the school knew who he was, but sketchy accounts of his years in Switzerland have him learning English and playing basketball.

Evans Revere, also formerly with the State Department, now at the Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School, says he could very well have attracted more than minimal attention because of the security and diplomatic officials around him.

"There was an ambassador in Switzerland whose full-time job was taking care of the family matters, including the accounts of the Kim family. And he was supposedly responsible for overseeing the health and welfare of this young man," Revere says.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Il (left) and Chinese President Hu Jintao i i

hide captionNorth Korean leader Kim Jong Il (left) meets with Chinese President Hu Jintao in Changchun, in northeast China's Jilin province, on Aug. 27. It's believed Kim Jong Il traveled with his youngest son, Kim Jong Un, on the rare trip to China, reigniting speculation the younger Kim will take over the reins of the reclusive communist nation. The transition of leadership will be a difficult one to manage both for North Korea and for its neighbors.

Ju Peng/Xinhua via AP
North Korean leader Kim Jong Il (left) and Chinese President Hu Jintao

North Korean leader Kim Jong Il (left) meets with Chinese President Hu Jintao in Changchun, in northeast China's Jilin province, on Aug. 27. It's believed Kim Jong Il traveled with his youngest son, Kim Jong Un, on the rare trip to China, reigniting speculation the younger Kim will take over the reins of the reclusive communist nation. The transition of leadership will be a difficult one to manage both for North Korea and for its neighbors.

Ju Peng/Xinhua via AP

The younger Kim is believed to have returned to North Korea after high school, to take courses at Kim Il Sung University in Pyongyang, named after the founder of the North Korean state, the father of Kim Jong Il and grandfather of Kim Jong Un.

Paving The Way For Succession

By his mid-20s, Kim Jong Un had assumed an official midlevel position in North Korea's governing apparatus, according to Straub.

"There are reports and rumors that he was involved in personnel matters for the North Korean regime. There are also rumors that a year or so ago, he got a little bit ahead of himself and was issuing too many orders and got in hot water with his father and some of the other leaders of the country," Straub says.

Then, two years ago, Kim Jong Il suffered an apparent stroke. He has not fully regained his health. Sometime last year, he began putting in place the mechanisms to determine whom his successor would be.

That entailed placing his brother-in-law at the top of the powerful National Defense Commission, the military body that effectively runs the country. It is believed that the brother-in-law, Jang Sang Taek, has been given the job of regent to the younger Kim's prince as Kim embarks on a crash course in political and military statecraft.

No Formula For Smooth Transition

Kim Jong Un may face a much more difficult transition than his father did in 1994, when Kim Il Sung died. Kim Jong Il may be leaving a far more unstable nation behind him, says Kang of the University of Southern California.

"Kim Jong Un faces a country that's far weaker, poorer and under much more international pressure. And it's not clear that any ruler is going to be able to come up with the right combination of policies that could allow North Korea to survive and prosper well into the future," Kang says. "He has a huge task in front of him."

By the same token, this will be a much more difficult transition to manage for those outside North Korea, including the United States, says Princeton's Revere.

"A person is going to assume the leadership of this country that we know virtually nothing about. And what little we know about him is based on sources that are perhaps not the most reliable," Revere says.

Kang warns that this is not a formula for a smooth transition.

"There's got to be divisions within the North Korean leadership about what's the best path forward. Those are all papered over right now because Kim Jong Il is clearly in power. And they will probably be papered over initially for Kim Jong Un," Kang says.

"But what will happen is, if Kim Jong Un faces a crisis or if he makes some obvious mistakes, then I think you could find fissures or divisions rapidly opening up," he says.

This is a crucial moment for North Korea and its neighbors. The absence of transparency makes it all the more troublesome.

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