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Mon. May 27, 2024
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North Korea's unpredictable succession
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By Jason Miks TOKYO -- Late last month, South Korean media released excerpts from the text of a revised constitution that officially designates Kim Jong-il “supreme leader” of North Korea. The revision, which actually took place in April, has been seen as an effort to bolster Kim’s standing, but comes against a backdrop of continued uncertainty about what exactly happens when Kim dies. And the Japanese press’ excitement in June over the discovery of what was believed to be a picture of his son, Kim Jong-un, was a stark reminder of just how little is known about the rumored likely successor to Kim Jong-il. With the “Dear Leader’s” health apparently ailing (although the top US commander in South Korea said recently he has been seen out and about more often than this time last year) and with rumors swirling he has selected his third son to take power after his death, analysts have been left clutching at any scraps of information - the accounts of a sushi chef or the recollections of old school friends who didn’t even know his real name – that they can find. “We actually know zero about this guy,” says Michael Breen, author of ‘Kim Jong-il: North Korea's Dear Leader.’ “The Japanese press seems to be ahead of everyone else. But they’re able to report rumor as fact and go on one source stories. So what we know constitutes bits and pieces, none of which we know for sure is true.” Back in June, there were reports that South Korean intelligence had briefed lawmakers that Jong-un had been chosen to succeed his father. But the nation’s defence chief later moved to tamp down such speculation, saying a final decision did not appear to have been made. “Several years ago, a similar series of rumors ‘confirmed’ that Kim Jong-Il’s second son, Kim Jong-chol, had been formally anointed as leader,” cautions Bruce Klingner, a senior research fellow at Washington’s Heritage Foundation. “And there were also indications that Jong-chol’s mother was being glorified as had occurred with Kim Jong-il’s mother during his accession to power.” And Breen adds that even if Jong-un has been selected, the decision is not necessarily set in stone. “Kim Jong-il was chosen about 20 years before the takeover as the heir apparent. But he could have lost that position at any time,” Breen says. “Similarly, we think the third son has been anointed. But he could just be being groomed and could still be deemed unfit.” Such uncertainty has not stopped the international media from speculating about what the few tidbits available say about the potential course of Pyongyang’s affairs. Jong-un, now believed to be 26 years-old, is said to have attended the International School of Berne in Switzerland under the name Pak Chol. Those that remember him say he enjoyed skiing, was a fan of basketball player Michael Jordan, and speaks English, French and German. Such talk has prompted speculation that Jong-un might be more outward looking than his father, and perhaps more willing to compromise on issues such as North Korea’s nuclear programme. However, Breen warns such analysis is not just hard to support, but could prove to be flat out wrong. “If anybody was going to ease North Korea into the Chinese style of liberalism, it was Kim Jong-il,” Breen says. “We sort of imagined him watching Western movies, mouthing the lines.” But Breen says that like Kim Jong-il, who inherited power from his father, Kim Il-sung, Jong-un would inevitably be bound by the constraints of his inheritance. “This isn’t a revolutionary environment. He’s not a kind of Che Guevara coming in with all his people,” Breen says. “He’ll inherit, as Kim Jong-il did, the 80-year-old generals. He can’t just fire people, so his hands are going to be pretty tied.” Haksoon Paik, senior fellow at South Korea’s Sejong Institute, agrees. “The reason Kim Il-sung handed power to his son, and why Kim Jong-il is now trying to do the same, is because they want a continuation of their policies and identities,” he says. The possibility of continuity has been underpinned by rumors that Kim Jong-il chose Jong-un in part because his second son is “too effeminate” and he wanted someone more in his own image. “There’s a lot of conjecture that Jong-un possesses some of the personal qualities Kim Jong-il would appreciate in his heir,” Paik says. Indeed, Klingner believes those hoping for a softer line could find themselves confronted with the opposite as a young heir tries to consolidate power. “He would have to base his own legitimacy on maintaining the legacy of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-il by continuing their nationalist and military-based policies,” Klingner says. “[And] to secure his hold on power, he may instigate a crisis to generate a ‘rally around the flag effect.’”

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