NPR logo

Tough Transition Awaits N. Korean Heir-Apparent

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Tough Transition Awaits N. Korean Heir-Apparent

Tough Transition Awaits N. Korean Heir-Apparent

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


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

North Korea has put the third son of Kim Jong Il on a path to be the next leader of the nation. Today, he was named vice chairman of the powerful Central Military Commission.

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

NPR's Mike Shuster reports.

MIKE SHUSTER: 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.

Professor DAVID KANG (Korean Studies Institute, 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.

SHUSTER: 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, now at Stanford, says that book includes some observations about the younger Kim.

Professor DAVID STRAUB (Associate Director, Korean Studies Program, Stanford University): And he says that Kim Jong Un is a chip off the old block, very much like his father: aggressive, ambitious, creative, ruthless.

SHUSTER: 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 Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton, says he could very well have attracted more than minimal attention because of the security and diplomatic officials around him.

Mr. EVANS REVERE (Diplomat in Residence, Woodrow Wilson School): 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.

SHUSTER: The younger Kim is believed to have returned to North Korea after high school to take courses at Kim Il Sung University in Pyongyang.

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

Prof. 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.

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

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.

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 David Kang.

Prof. KANG: 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. I mean, he has a huge task in front of him.

SHUSTER: By the same token, this would be a much more difficult transition to manage for those outside North Korea, including the United States, says Evans Revere.

Mr. 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.

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

Prof. KANG: 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. 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.

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

Mike Shuster, NPR News.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.