MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

The reclusive leader of North Korea has been mocked for his beige jumpsuits and elevator heels, and dismissed by President Bush as a pygmy. And Kim Jong Il has been caricatured as a dangerously irrational dictator. Recent reports of health problems raised the question of who will be the next ruler of North Korea. NPR's Louisa Lim has the second of two pieces on what could happen after Kim Jong Il.

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LOUISA LIM: As a no-show, it was spectacular, causing a frisson of fear and worldwide headlines. Kim Jong Il, North Korea's Dear Leader, missed his own party, the military parade marking the 60th anniversary of the Stalinist state.

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LIM: Report says he's recovering from surgery after a cerebral hemorrhage. One report says he's partially paralyzed. Chinese intelligence says he suffers from convulsions. South Korean intelligence says he's recovered enough to brush his own teeth. North Korea says he's absolutely fine. The truth is, no one knows his condition. What's more, his biographer, Michael Breen, says no one knows who his heir apparent is.

NORRIS: North Korea has not announced anything. There's not evidence that someone is being groomed. So my conclusion is that there is actually no succession plan in place.

LIM: Kim Jong Il's eldest son, 37-year-old Kim Jong Nam, fell out of favor after trying to enter Japan on a fake Dominican Republic passport. He wanted to visit Disneyland, he told immigration. He has two younger brothers, of whom Michael Breen says almost nothing is known.

NORRIS: The other two are in their mid-20s, went to school in Europe. One of them is said to be an Eric Clapton fan, that - this is sort of front line of our intelligence on these two.

LIM: Kim Jong Il's father spent more than two decades grooming him for power, but he hasn't done the same for any of his sons, perhaps fearing any dilution of his absolute authority would make him a lame-duck leader. And another Communist dynastic succession is opposed by the international community, even by Pyongyang's closest ally, China. Cai Jian from Fudan University in Shanghai says China's leaders are weighing up all the options.

NORRIS: (Through Translator) We think the three sons are lacking in ability, experience or knowledge to take on power. But China would not like to see military hardliners seize power. We'd like to see the emergence of a collective leadership, like in China.

LIM: That collective leadership could contain one important political figure linked to the family, Kim's brother-in-law, Chang Sung-Taek. Once dubbed the second most powerful man in North Korea, he was exiled to the countryside in 2004, but subsequently restored to an important party post. Some predict he could play a regent role until a chosen heir can take over. Indeed, Pak Haik-Soon from Sejong Institute believes the collective leadership group might already be taking shape.

NORRIS: The combination of the key figures in the party, and in the intelligence community and in the military, will combine to support Kim Jong Il, which is happening now, and will support new leader if Kim Jong Il is replaced.

LIM: It's also unclear what the balance of power might be in a collective leadership, whether the Workers Party or the army would dominate. Analysts disagree on this. Now that Pyongyang is believed to have at least one nuclear weapon, the stakes are high. And some, such as Choi Jin-Wook from the Korea Institute for National Unification, believe friction between factions is likely, or worse.

NORRIS: It will be very unstable because, you know, during the last decade, Kim Jong Il enjoyed divide and rule. And North Korean elites do not trust each other, so nobody can control anybody when Kim Jong Il is in critical condition or dies. It's very likely that political elites will fight each other over the leadership.

LIM: Others, however, believe a collective leadership is unlikely. Brian Myers from Dongseo University says his study of North Korean propaganda informs that belief.

P: One of the most important tenets of North Korean propaganda has been that a nation needs a strong single leader in order to survive.

LIM: In summary, no one really has a clue what will happen after Kim Jong Il, and one irony of all the speculation is this. For all his eccentricities and brinksmanship, Kim Jong Il is starting to look like a more attractive negotiating partner, given the lack of an alternative. Pak Haik-Soon again.

NORRIS: If we think about all kinds of complexities and unpredictability, instability of the power-succession process, Kim Jong Il may turn out to be lesser evil.

LIM: Louisa Lim, NPR News, Seoul.

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