Little Known About North's Korea's Heir Apparent

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North Korea's ailing leader Kim Jong Il elevated his sister and his son Kim Jong Un to new roles in the nation's military and political party. Not much is known about the 20-something Kim, who could become North Korea's second most powerful man. Josh Keating of Foreign Policy magazine talks to Ari Shapiro about the shadowy personalities of North Korea's ruling family, and the media speculation about them.

ARI SHAPIRO, host:

And to learn more about Kim Jong Eun, we've called Josh Keating of Foreign Policy magazine.

Welcome.

Mr. JOSH KEATING (Foreign Policy Magazine): Thanks for having me.

SHAPIRO: So we've just, within the last day, received this photo of the younger Kim. We know he went to school in Switzerland. What else can you tell us about him?

Mr. KEATING: Well, we really don't know much about Kim at this point. We know -as you mentioned, we know he went to school in Switzerland. He's rumored to have been a good basketball player, or perhaps not. And we know that he wasn't the first choice to take over. That was his older brother, Kim Jong Nam.

Now, Kim Jong Nam fell out of favor with the family. He was caught trying to enter Japan on a fake Nicaraguan passport. And when they caught him, he said he was trying to go to Disneyland. Kind of resulted in Kim Jong Nam falling out of favor. Now, he's periodically spotted in casinos in Macau.

And - yeah, so attention is now focused on Kim Jong Eun. He's rumored to have been behind a scheme to revalue the North Korean currency last year, which turned into a complete...

SHAPIRO: Was disastrous.

Mr. KEATING: ...turned into a complete disaster. There was rampant inflation, people trying to get their money out.

SHAPIRO: And lifetime savings were wiped out overnight.

Mr. KEATING: Yeah, and people's savings were completely wiped out. It may also be telling that Kim Jong Il promoted his sister, Kim Jong Eun's aunt. And this may be a sign that Kim doesn't entirely trust his son, and may want an older relative around to keep an eye on him for at least the first couple years.

SHAPIRO: I understand that whenever we talk about the key players in North Korea, we're sort of reading tea leaves, to a certain extent. But is there any evidence as to whether the younger Kim would desire to keep North Korea as closed as it has been, or open it up a little bit? Is there any reason to believe he would change anything?

Mr. KEATING: There certainly aren't very many signs that he would change much, and we dont know much about his political beliefs. And the same kind of circle of supporters that were around Kim Jong Il originally are still going to be there.

SHAPIRO: Now, you mentioned that at roughly the same time that the leader, Kim Jong Il, appointed his son a general, he elevated his sister as well. Tell us more about why he would do that, and what role his sister plays in the country.

Mr. KEATING: Well, she's been rising for a while, and she's seen probably as one of her brother's closest confidantes and one of the people that he trusts most, and he's been giving her more and responsibility. She's also rumored to have the personality that runs in the family. She's said to have a very strong temper and be a pretty heavy drinker, which would be consistent with her brother's record as well.

SHAPIRO: You know, 30 years ago, Kim Jong Il took over from his father. Was there much of a change in North Korea in that generational shift, that might give us a clue as to what we could see in this generational shift?

Mr. KEATING: Well, there were several years of ambiguity as well, where it wasnt quite clear whether he would take full control. And there was a bit of a power struggle. So that'll be something to watch as well - whether this - kind of a seamless transition, or whether there's going to be a fight for control with Kim Jong Eun and some of his other relatives or with the military, other senior members of the party, trying to step up and take control away from the Kim family.

SHAPIRO: Yeah. I should ask: We're speaking as though it is a done deal, that Kim Jong Eun is going to take over the country, but are there outside factors that could shake things up?

Mr. KEATING: Well, sure. I mean, he's not as well-known as his father. He doesnt have much of a profile in the country, and especially after the kind of disastrous economic moves of the last few years, there may be much more widespread discontent, and the Kim family personality cult may not be what it used to be. So we could see a period where there's kind of a power struggle. But in a regime like this, it's likely to come from within the top levels of leadership rather than any kind of popular uprising.

SHAPIRO: You know, you mentioned that Kim Jong Il's older son was sort of shut out of the power structure, and is now sometimes spotted in casinos in Macau. And I have to wonder whether that's a better fate than ruling North Korea.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KEATING: He seems to think so. He gets interviewed periodically when he appears, and he says he's out of politics and doesnt really involve himself with it. And you know, personally, I think he may have gotten the better end of the deal.

SHAPIRO: All right. That's Josh Keating of Foreign Policy magazine, talking with us about the succession of power in North Korea.

Thanks a lot.

Mr. KEATING: Thanks for having me.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Some South Koreans may get a better idea of whats going on in North Korea because this morning, weve learned the two Koreas have agreed to resume reunions among families that have been separated for more than half a century. They're on both sides of the demilitarized zone that still splits the two Koreas.

Millions of families were split by the war in the early '50s. In recent years, some of those families were allowed to get together for brief periods. But those reunions were suspended a year ago. And relations have been particularly tense since the sinking in March of a South Korean warship. An international investigation said North Korea was responsible. The upcoming family reunions will be held from October 30th to November 5th at a hotel in North Korea.

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