North Korea Struggles With Succession
By Wendell Minnick
TAIPEI — Pyongyang’s threats of more nuclear tests and missile launches have stoked interest in who will succeed North Korean leader Kim Jong-il.
Succession talk has heated up since August, when Kim reportedly suffered a stroke, and with the emergence of photos showing the 67-year-old leader looking emaciated. Talk has recently focused on Kim’s third and youngest son, Kim Jong-un, 26.
“I am increasingly confident that Kim Jong-il has initiated a careful process of unveiling his third son, Jong-un, as his successor,” said Kenneth Quinones, who served as the U.S. State Department’s North Korean affairs officer from 1992 to 1994.
The oldest son, Kim Jong-nam, lost favor in 2001 after he was arrested in Japan for carrying a fake passport in an attempt to visit Disneyland. He was deported to China; there have since been reports that he is living in Macao.
Jong-un moved to the top of the list after his April appointment to the National Defense Commission (NDC), even though his name did not appear as expected on the March list of members of the Supreme People’s Assembly.
The NDC job appears to be more a test than a position of responsibility for Jong-un.
“The young man’s appointment to a position on the NDC, regardless of rank, suggests that Kim Jong-Il is testing the waters to see how the generals might react to this selection,” said Quinones, a professor of Korean Studies at Akita International University in Japan.
Jong-un attended an international school in Bern, the capital of Switzerland, and reportedly speaks English and German.
“The cloistered generals most likely would feel insecure with having a ‘westernized’ young man selected as Kim’s successor. In my view, Kim Jong-Il recognizes this, and thus has been stroking the generals’ ego and WMD [weapons of mass destruction] budget to rally their support.”
Quinones also expects the son to undergo intense education in the Juche Idea, the country’s official ideology and political system.
“His study in Bern is more a liability than an asset. Consequently, it is imperative that he avoid any appearance of demonstrating an inclination toward ‘reform’ of his father’s system,” Quinones said.
Jong-un’s youth also appears to be an impediment. Some observers say the NDC appointment will ensure the military remains in control.
Chang Song-taek, Kim Jong-il’s brother-in-law, was also appointed to the NDC in April, drawing speculation that Chang, 63, would take control until Jung-un was of age.
“Chang Song-taek is often seen as a likely player,” said Victor Cha, former director of Asian Affairs, U.S. National Security Council, and deputy head of the U.S. delegation to the Six Party Talks.
Cha said that “internal fluidity” of the regime “helps to explain the external bad behavior.” North Korea launched a Taepondong-2 intercontinental ballistic missile on April 4, and threatened to launch more missiles and conduct a nuclear test if the United Nations did not apologize for condemning the earlier launch.
The missile launch and threats are signs of internal power struggles, Cha said.