Yesterday, the state media of the Democratic Republic of Korea officially named Kim Jong-un as the “great successor” to Kim Jong-il, the North Korean dictator who died at the age of 69 on Saturday. Kim Jong-il’s death immediately shifted spotlight to his third son.
Speculations in the South Korean media about what lies ahead range from a military dictatorship worse than Kim Jong-il’s to a collective leadership. An exile from North Korea who worked for the North Korean military for eight years told Korean newspaper NEWS that “among North Koreans, Kim Jong-un is known for his eccentric personality — more so than Kim Jong-il. To make up for his lack of political experience, the leader is likely to cut off contact with the citizens and the rest of the world.”
Song Ho-Geun, a lecturer in social studies at Seoul University, speaking to Yon Hap News (the Korean Associated Press), paints a picture that is just as bleak: “Kim Jong-il has died without a proper succession in place, so a struggle for leadership is inevitable. South Korea should be prepared for a struggle for leadership, both gradual and sudden,” Song says.
It wasn’t until September last year that the youngest son of North Korea’s leader was made a four-star general and given senior party posts. It was also around that time that the state media released an adult photo of Kim Jong-un for the first time.
Kim Jong-un’s obscurity stands in contrast to the personality cult built around Kim Jong-il, who had been known as the “Dear Leader” as far back as 1982, more than a decade before his father’s death in 1994. In 1991, he had been appointed as the supreme commander of the North Korean armed forces — a significant step to leadership in a military dictatorship — and in 1993, he was named the chairman of the National Defence Commission.
While Kim Il-sung, as the founding leader of North Korea, did not inherit a cult, he successfully built himself as the “Eternal Leader” of North Korea — and lest we forget, there are over 500 statues of Kim Il-sung; his image features in banknotes and North Korean newlyweds are expected to pay tribute to him soon after their wedding.
Ever since Kim Jong-il suffered a stroke in August 2008, a second dynastic succession had been pushed to the forefront of the agenda. The state media began referring to Kim Jong-un as “general”, which South Korean Sejong Institute analyst Cheong Seong-chang saw as an effort to boost the image of Kim Jong-un as military leader.
Kim Jong-un is believed to have been born on January 8, 1984. His mother, Ko Young-hee, was a performer in Kim Jong-il’s infamous extravagant North Korean dance troupes. Kim Jong-un attended an international school in Switzerland, where he went by the name “Pak Un” and was known as a driver’s son, until he mysteriously “disappeared” from Switzerland around 1999.
As the youngest son from a Japanese-born Korean mother, Kim Jong-un was the least likely choice of a successor. The eldest son, Kim Jong-nam, appeared to be the next in line to the North Korean throne: in 1998, he was appointed to a senior position in the Ministry of Public Security and in January 2001, he served as his father’s showboy, having been chosen to accompany his father to Shanghai to meet Chinese officials.
But Kim Jong-nam had a weakness: he was caught in May 2001 attempting to travel on a forged Dominican Republic passport to Disneyland in Tokyo. Since then, a campaign under the slogan “The Respected Mother Is The Most Faithful and Loyal Subject to the Dear Leader Comrade Supreme Commander” was launched, referring to Ko Young-hee, the mother of Kim Jong-chul and Kim Jong-un. This led commentators to suspect that either of the son could be the next one in line.
Kenji Fujimoto was Kim Jong-il’s former Japanese sushi chef who spent 13 years with the family in Pyongyang from 1988 to 2001. In an interview with Japanese commercial television, Fujimoto recalled Kim Jong-il describing his eldest son Kim Jong-chul “too girlish”. Both Western and South Korean bloggers have speculated whether he is gay, although none of the speculations are verified. Kim Jong-il picked Kim Jong-un as his favourite, saying “that boy is like me”. For Fujimoto, Kim Jong-un was an obvious choice of a successor: “… if power is to be handed over then Jong-un is the best for it. He has superb physical gifts, is a big drinker and never admits defeat.”
However, there are other, less favourable, accounts of the prince-soon-to-be-king. Hwang Jang Yup, the architect of Juche Idea, North Korea’s official state ideology, who defected to South Korea in 1997, wrote that Kim Jong-un acted like a prince and used his status to manipulate other children. There has been speculation in the South Korean media — unconfirmed — about Kim Jong-un’s attempts to assassinate his step-brother Kim Jong-nam and to order the military to kill all attempted exiles from North Korea.
Badges with Kim Jong-un’s face were reportedly distributed among senior North Korean officials as early as 2006. Many analysts have viewed the promotion of Jang Song-taek, Kim Jong-un’s brother-in-law, to the national defence commission, as a move to place Jang in a caretaker role. The naming of Kim Jong-un as the successor, therefore, comes more as a curiosity than a surprise to the rest of the world: who is the new kid on the block, and what will it mean for the rest of the world?
Moon Jeong In, a lecturer in politics and international relations at Yonsei University, says that the death of Kim Jong-il is unlikely to result in much change.
“Would there be much change in North Korea? I suspect that North Korea has been preparing for [the death of Kim Jong-il]. I think there was a reason for rushing the succession process for Kim Jong-un. They had already put Jang Sung-taek [brother-in-law of Kim Jong-un and the vice-chairman of the National Defence Commission of North Korea], and Kim Kyung-hee, [sister of Kim Jong-un and the director of the Light Industry Department of Worker’s Party of Korea], in power.”
The additional comfort — or at least reassurance of stability — comes from the fact that there is no equivalent to the Arab Spring in North Korea. Kim Yong-Hyun, a lecturer in North Korean studies at Dong Kook University, says “… practically there is no resistance that will challenge the political system.”
However, even academics who doubt any disruption to the peninsula’s peace in the long term, agree that the succession is likely to produce conservative policies and halt any progress, at least in the short term. Cha Du Hyun, analyst at the Korean Institute for Defence Analyses, told the Korean Associated Press: “North Korea is likely to close off conversation. It is refusing to accept a visiting party from South Korea. In the North Korean Constitution, there is no system in place for succession. The sixth party talk is likely to be put on hold.” The sixth party talk is a discussion between the two Koreas, China, the United States of America, Russia and Japan about the North Korean nuclear weapons program.
Some, like Lee Jae-Jong of Sungkonghoe University, believe that the absence of a personality cult surrounding the enigmatic leader will result in a collective leadership. After the death of Kim Il-song in 1994, there was a three-year mourning period before Kim Jong-il was instituted as the official leader. If the same mourning period applied, strengthening the Workers’ Party of Korea would be difficult for Kim Jong-un, especially if he cannot host a Party Congress during this period.
Given Kim Jong-un’s lack of political experience, he may, at least initially, rely on the leadership of Jang Sung-Taek and Kim Jyung-Hee. However, the true colours of the enigmatic leader of one of the last remaining dictatorships remains to be seen.