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Kim Jong-il's Successor:
Prospects for Future in North Korea
Interview with Dr. Victor D. Cha
This file photo shows Kim Jong-Un, the possible successor of North Korean leader Kim Jung-Il when he was a student of International School of Berne in Switzerland. The 26-year-old youngest son is firmly control of armed forces. He attended the Swiss school under the false name of Pak Chol.

Q1: Why is there news now that North Korean leader Kim Jong-il has designated a successor?

A1: The primary reason for the start of a succession plan relates to Kim Jong-il's health. It is widely believed that the North Korean leader, 68 years old, suffered a stroke last year from which he has not fully recovered. Questions about his capacity to rule increased dramatically after photos were released of the leader at the Supreme Peoples' Assembly in April 2009 where he looked extremely gaunt and unhealthy.

Q2: Who is Kim Jong-un, the designated successor?

A2: He is the third and youngest son of Kim Jong-il, born in either 1983 or 1984. The son of the North Korean leader's third wife, Jong-un is widely reputed to be the smartest of the three sons, and perhaps the most politically ambitious. Jong-un is reported to have studied abroad in Switzerland in addition to his formal education in North Korea.

Q3: Who are the other contenders for power?

A3: In the tradition of family dynastic succession in North Korea, the eldest son might be the most likely contender for power. He is Kim Jong-nam, 39 years old. But Jong-nam is reputed to have fallen out of his father's favor because of an overly extravagant lifestyle, which included gambling in Macao among other pursuits. He became most well-known in the international news cycle when he was detained in Narita International Airport for attempting to enter Japan on a fake passport from the Dominican Republic. His reputed reason for entering the country was to take his family to Disney World. The second son, Kim Jong-chul, is not considered by the father to be of leadership material because he is too "effeminate" for the job.

Q4: Can Kim Jong-un rule the country?

A4: If Jong-un has truly been chosen as the next leader of North Korea, then his biggest challenge is his lack of experience. In a country where revolutionary credentials help to determine legitimacy, the 26 year old has none of the experience of his father and none of the historic credentials of his grandfather, the first leader of North Korea until 1994, Kim Il-Sung. Jong-un is likely to be surrounded by a cadre of top officials and members of the Kim family who will protect him as they govern the country by committee in a post–Kim Jong-il era. One likely regent to Jong-un is Chang Song-taek—the brother in law of Kim Jong-il. Chang has taken a top position in the primary decisionmaking body in North Korea, the National Defense Commission. Known formerly as a reformer, Chang has returned to North Korean power circles as a hard-liner.

Q5: Does leadership change in North Korea open the possibility for reform?

A5: The most interesting aspect of this potential leadership transition is that Jong-un represents perhaps a more cosmopolitan type of future leadership that has been missing from North Korea since the death of Kim Il-Sung in 1994. The so-called Cold War generation of leadership under Kim Il-Sung had the benefit of traveling within the Eastern Bloc. Kim Il-Sung used to vacation, for example, with Erich Honecker and Nicolae Ceauşescu. But Kim Jong-il's generation of leadership, which ruled the country in the post–Cold War era, had none of these advantages. They are an insular leadership, tightly wound around the military. In this respect, Jong-un—if he ever successfully establishes himself as the future leader—offers the potential for a different type of North Korean leader, although he would constitute only one enlightened individual in an otherwise anachronistic system.

Victor D. Cha holds the Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2009 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.






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