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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.

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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.

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“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.” 

 Just how isolated is North Korea? 6 facts to consider 

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