Understanding North Korea's Succession Drama

Meet Kim Jong-Un

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North Korea named Kim Jong-Un, the 26 year old son of lifelong dictator Kim Jong-Il, a new four-star general on Monday, which many view as the anointment of Jong-Un as the presumed successor. The announcement was made at the largest gathering of North Korean state officials in 30 years, where the leader also promoted his sister, Kim Kyong-Hui. Jong-Il's health has been the subject of much speculation by North Korea-watchers, who say that the eccentric leader appears to be rapidly deteriorating. Here's what we know about the ongoing succession speculation and what it could mean.

  • What We Know About Kim Jong-Un  Foreign Policy's Joshua Keating and Charles Homans write, "Facts about Kim fils ... are hard to come by. He attended an international boarding school in Bern, Switzerland, under a pseudonym until he was 15; his former classmates describe him as a shy boy who loved Michael Jordan, skiing, and action movies. He is the youngest of Kim Jong Il's three sons, but believed to be his favorite. Kim Jong Nam, Jong Un's older half brother, was assumed to be the designated heir until he disgraced himself in 2001, getting caught trying to enter Japan on a fake passport. ('I wanted to go to Disneyland,' he told police.) Kim Jong Chul, Jong Un's older brother, is considered by Jong Il to be 'no good because he is like a little girl,' according to Fujimoto."
  • Lets Hope Kim Jong-Il's 'Evil' Sister Doesn't Take Over  The Daily Beast's Philip Shenon worries, "[Kim Kyong-Hui]’s rise gives no hope to Korea watchers that she might bring a lighter, feminine touch to the otherwise brutal regime—far from it. Korea scholars and diplomats who specialize in Korean affairs say they have no particular reason to doubt reports in the press in South Korea and Japan that Mrs. Kim arranged a traffic accident in June 2009 in which a rival party official was killed. ... They also have no reason, they say, to question reports that she is a raging alcoholic whose relationship with her own children has been poisonous." He says she is described by experts as simply "evil."
  • 'Coalition' Leadership Developing  The Council on Foreign Relations' Sue Mi Terry advises, "What's most noteworthy is that ever since its founding at the end of World War Two, North Korea was ruled by one strong man, either Kim Il-Sung or his son, Kim Jong-Il. Now what's interesting is that there are several powerful figures: Jang Song-Taek, Kim Kyong-Hui, and Kim Jong-Un. Now we have multiple power centers. ... So we are really looking at going toward more of a collective leadership for now. All the other elites in North Korea have an interest in keeping the system together, in continuing the status quo, because they have to hang together. ... It will be interesting to see if the elites will be able to sustain that coalition."
  • Kim Jong-Il's Plan to Keep His Family in Power Could Backfire  Nightwatch's John McCreary writes, "Kim Jong-Il does not trust his youngest son to govern anything, which explains the regency troika. The various appointments and elevation of an untested youth in this fashion has no precedent in recent North Korean history. the process looks poorly and hastily thought out in terms of competence and ability, but crafted to try to keep the Kim family in charge. It suggests that Kim Jong-il is sick and could die with little warning. Appointing neophytes and civilians to four-star military ranks looks ill-conceived and prone to incite resistance from professional military ranks. The leadership is becoming much less stable and durable. Nevertheless, the announcements leave no room for doubt that the heir-apparent is the third son, Kim Jong-un. That does not mean he will ever govern."
  • North Korea Could Collapse if Succession Goes Poorly  The Australian's Yoon Young-Kwan warns, "Whatever happens, and whoever turns out to be the new leader, North Korea most likely faces an unstable future. The cost of maintaining internal order will continue to rise as the system's fundamental defects force the new leader to confront stark new challenges. Moreover, responsibility for managing that potential instability extends far beyond the leadership in Pyongyang. ... There is no hope that any new leader, whoever it may be, will get any breathing space to establish unquestioned control, given the economy's utter state of decay, as last year's failed bid to reform the currency demonstrated. The regime is under growing pressure from those at the bottom of North Korean society, and recognises its own inability to handle the situation."
  • Things Will Probably Remain Terrible  The Guardian's editorial board laments, "North Korea could gradually liberalise under its Swiss-educated ruler-in-waiting, in the knowledge that this is the only path that ensures the stability of the regime and of the country. But there is as little evidence for a North Korean perestroika as there is for any other benign outcome. Everything points to a continuation of the tyranny. A stroke has forced Kim Jong-il to confront his own mortality, but despite famines and floods that dispatched millions, the same has yet to happen to the world's most reclusive regime."
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