North Korea's Kim Jong-un not really in control, says brother

Kim Jong-un's brother reportedly wonders how long North Korea's Kim Jong-un can last – or how much say he will have over his own destiny, let alone that of his people.

By , Correspondent

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    In this undated photo released Wednesday, and distributed Thursday in Tokyo, North Korea's new leader Kim Jong-un (r.) inspects the Pyongyang Folk Park under construction in Pyongyang, North Korea. The oldest son of the late North Korean leader Kim Jong-il is casting doubts on his late father's choice of his youngest brother, Kim Jong-un, as leader.
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The oldest son of the late North Korean leader Kim Jong-il is casting doubts on his late father’s choice of his youngest brother as “grand successor,” but that’s not dimming the extravaganza of praise within North Korea for Kim Jong-un as “supreme leader.”

The display of Kim Jong-un riding a white horse and shaking hands with soldiers, as well as reports by the North Korean media that he recommended a military response 2-1/2 years ago to any US attempt to obstruct a missile test, convince analysts that the young man is sure to enjoy the trappings of power for the foreseeable future.

“The messages the North Korean leadership has tried to project are stability, continuity, and control,” says Scott Snyder, senior fellow for Korea Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. But, he adds, “I do not know what is happening under the surface or if these messages reflect reality in Pyongyang.”

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Kim’s oldest brother, Kim Jong-Nam, living in the gambling enclave of Macao on the southeastern coast of China, hinted at the lack of confidence behind the campaign to glorify the new leader, according to a Japanese newspaper.

Rejected by his father as a successor more than 10 years ago, Kim Jong-nam reportedly talked about the buildup of his brother while expressing misgivings. Mr. Kim reportedly told the Tokyo Shimbun in an e-mail that he expected “the existing ruling elite to follow in the footsteps of my father while keeping the young successor as a symbolic figure."

It was “difficult,” he was quoted as saying in a burst of frankness that he has displayed in earlier encounters with the Japanese media, “to accept a third-generation succession under normal reasoning."

Kim Jong-nam was quoted in a newly published book by Japanese journalist Yoji Gomi as having been still more critical.In the book, entitled "My father Kim Jong-Il and Me," he said, "North Korea is very unstable" and "the power of the military has become too strong." Jong-nam, communicating in Korean by e-mail and in interviews with Mr. Gomi last year, is quoted as saying, "If the succession ends in failure, the military will wield the real power for sure."

That perspective from a close but clearly disillusioned relative jibes with the views of foreign analysts who wonder how long Kim Jong-un can last – or whether he can possibly take charge of his own destiny and that of his people.

“The efforts to put Kim Jong-un front and center immediately reflects a rushed succession process,” says Victor Cha, who directed Asian issues on the National Security Council during the presidency of George W. Bush. Mr. Cha, now a professor at Georgetown University in Washington, predicts that what he calls “a Potemkin leadership transition” in Pyongyang “will likely run into problems.”

Too much forced mourning

One sign of potential problems are reports, picked up by South Korean media, that much of the mass public mourning for Kim Jong-il was forced.

“Most who participated in events during the mourning period were indeed merely going through the motions,” says Daily NK, a website here that reports regularly on North Korean news attributed to “internal sources,” mainly contacts with cellphones linked to Chinese networks. “Sources say that many of those who did cry were forcing tears, fearing later repercussions if they did not.”

North Korea denies, however, that those who failed to show their grief have been arrested in a move that some analysts believe could turn into a purge of potential foes of the regime. “Spurious claims of coerced sadness and stage-management can no longer be tolerated,” said Pyongyang’s Korean Central News Agency.

Such rhetoric arouses little concern among analysts who see it as part of the effort to bolster Kim Jong-un in an atmosphere of possible insecurity about what’s really going on. “North Korea will stay the course for the time being,” says Mark Fitzpatrick, a senior fellow at the Institute for International Security Studies in London. “The natural inclination is to continue the policies of the dearly beloved” – a reference to Kim Jong-il, often referred to in the North Korean media as “dear leader.”

While the North Korean media carry daily reports of the accomplishments of Kim Jong-un, the sense is that trouble lies ahead.

“So far was the easy bit,” says Aidan Foster-Carter, honorary fellow at Leeds University in England.  “For the funeral, they had a script. From here on, it gets harder. They’re improvising.”

Mr. Foster-Carter sees “uncertainty at home and abroad” as inevitable considering Kim Jong-un’s youth and lack of experience.

“There must have been a prior decision to boost him rather than rule by committee,” he says. “That will be hard to bring off. He’s just a kid. He’s done nothing. Making up a story will fool no one.” His conclusion: “The uncertainty is real.”

Meanwhile, Kim Jong-nam, spotted at Beijing International Airport by a South Korean professor, did not seem overly concerned about the passing of his father, whose funeral he is not known to have attended, or his role as big brother.

“Oh, [that’s] nature,” was his response to Park Seung-jun of Incheon University when asked if he was shocked by his father’s death, according to Yonhap, the South Korean news agency.  His answer to whether he would take care of his younger brothers and sister, according to Korean tradition, was distinctly unenthusiastic: “I guess so.” 

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