Kim Jong Un: North Korea's next leader?
'Dear Leader' Kim Jong Il has reportedly tapped his youngest son as his successor.
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North Koreans reportedly are referring to Kim Jong Un as "Commander Kim," and learning a new song written in his praise similar to songs written for his father, Kim Jong Il, and grandfather, Kim Il Sung, who ruled the North from the end of World War II, through the Korean War, until his death in July 1994.Skip to next paragraph
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The adulation for Kim Jong Un strikes some observers as extremely strange, considering that the young man was educated in a school in Bern, Switzerland (where he learned English, German, and French), is a fan of the National Basketball Association, and has nothing in his background to recommend him to leadership, aside from his father's love.
Kim Jong Il's concern about his health appears to be the driving factor behind his concerns about succession, as well as his military and diplomatic moves.
"North Koreans are consolidating behind Kim Jong Il's power," says Kim Tae-woo. "Of course they will be thinking about succession."
A favorite, perhaps by default
Kim Tae-woo wonders, however, if reports of Kim Jong Un's rise are premature. "I don't believe it even though Kim Jong Il could be a favorite son of his father. Frankly, I am confused."
Kim Jong Un has long been rumored as his father's favorite, almost by default.
His oldest brother, 38-year-old Kim Jong Nam, is considered a playboy – and his image was badly tarnished when he was detained at Japan's Narita Airport eight years ago attempting to enter the country on a fake Dominican passport.
He was sent home to North Korea after explaining to Japanese immigration authorities that he had wanted to visit Disneyland with his family.
And middle-brother Kim Jong Chol has long since been written off by his father as appearing too feminine in manner, according to Kim Jong Il's former sushi chef, Kenji Fujimoto, whose book, published six years ago after he returned to Japan, remains one of the few sources on life in Kim Jong Il's inner circle.
Bruce Klinger, senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, says he takes "all these stories" about a successor to Kim Jong Il "with a grain of salt," but believes, "Whoever is the leader, it will be a collective leadership."
Within the ruling family, Kim Jong Il's brother-in-law, Jang Song-thaek, appears to wield the most power after Kim himself.
Mr. Jang, the brother of the late Ko Yong-hi, third wife of Kim Jong Il and mother of Kim Jong Il's two younger sons, was named a member of the National Defense Commission, the center of power of North Korea, shortly after the missile test on April 5.
Ms. Ko is believed to have worked feverishly on behalf of her sons and her brother before her death five years ago. Kim Jong Un has not been seen in a photograph since he was 11 years old, but is reported to resemble his father physically, meaning he is somewhat overweight.
He also is reported to suffer from a diagnosis of diabetes, like his father, and to have been in a car accident last summer – an event that sped up concerns about succession to power.
Kim Jong Il wields his power mainly through his post as chairman of the defense commission, and has often promoted his "military first" policy. Near or at the apex, however, are a number of generals who may be waiting to assert their own power after Kim Jong Il's death.
Whoever takes over, analysts are not optimistic about a sudden softening of North Korea's tough outlook toward South Korea – or the rest of the world.
"The policy will not change," says Mr. Klinger. Nor would Kim Jong Un's rise "have inherent legitimacy," he says, in view of "the dynasty aspect" – another reason why generals might assert themselves behind the cover of the ruling family.