NPR logo

Few Things Clear About Succession In North Korea

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Few Things Clear About Succession In North Korea


Few Things Clear About Succession In North Korea

Few Things Clear About Succession In North Korea

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

An image grab from North Korea's state-run Korean Central Television, broadcast on South Korean television and taken Thursday, shows the man experts believe is Kim Jong Un, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il's youngest son and likely heir, attending the Conference of the Workers' Party of Korea in Pyongyang on Tuesday. TV/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption
TV/AFP/Getty Images

The world knows one thing for sure as a result of North Korea's ruling Workers' Party conference of the past few days: Supreme leader Kim Jong Il has clearly designated his successor, his son Kim Jong Un.

North Korean media released the first pictures of the 20-something young man Thursday. Other things about the succession are much less clear though, and in South Korea, where analysts watch every twist and turn of North Korean politics, not everyone believes the succession will be plain sailing.

The pictures have all been of agreement and conformity — rows of delegates all applauding in unison in the way that North Korean functionaries do. But if you ask people in Seoul, that is not the whole story.

'More Confucian Than Confucius'

"What has happened [in the] past two days is not the end of succession process," says Moon Chung-in, a professor at Yonsei University. "[It's] barely [the] beginning of [the] succession process. "

Moon says though North Korea is very communist and still very Confucian in its hierarchical approach to politics, the young prince Kim Jong Un has a lot to prove before he can take over power.

"North Korea is more Confucian than Confucius. You cannot become leader with legitimacy without making contribution to the people," he said. "But Kim Jong Un has so far ... not made any significant contribution to the people.

"Therefore, in the process of preparing for his political succession, he will be making a lot of effort to impress North Korean people."

No Gorbachev-Style Reformer

Brian Myers, an associate professor of international studies at Dongseo University, says not only is Kim Jong Un not going to be a reformer in the manner of former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, but his lack of legitimacy could well lead to provocative behavior internationally.

"The more problems, the more difficulty the regime has legitimizing this young man, the greater the pressure is going to be on North Korea to engage in provocations, to ratchet up tension with the outside world in order to rally the North Korean masses around the new leader," Myers said. "The fact that North Korea has chosen a young and untested leader is actually not grounds for optimism."

While much of the focus has been on Kim Jong Un himself, some analysts say other appointments could prove to be more key: Kim Jong Il has promoted his sister and her husband, and strengthened his family as opposed to the military's old guard.

Old Guard Sidelined

"Potential danger of the conflict between the party and military is there," said Choi Jin-wook of the Korean Institute for National Unification. "It's quite clear."

Choi says even more important could be the rise of some younger generals in the military.

Kim Jong Il has promoted one more junior general over the heads of other senior generals into the Politburo Standing Committee and made him one of the five most powerful people in the Workers' Party. That, Choi says, could sow some seeds of anger among the military top brass.

"Family members and young generals seem to be the winners ... and old members of military are now losing their power," he said. "You wake up one morning, and you realize all of a sudden your junior staff is in higher position than you are.

"That is a shock to the old guard."

The Kremlinology will continue over the months and years to come, and the situation in North Korea could play out very slowly if Kim Jong Il lives many years longer. But if he is as sick as many suggest, events could become more complex more quickly, analysts say, and those fault lines and power struggles could break out into the open.