Concerns soar over untested leader’s viability
By Kim Young-jin
North Korea on Monday heralded Kim Jong-il’s youngest son, Kim Jong-un, as its “great successor” after the late dictator’s death was announced earlier in the day, setting major concerns about the future of the nuclear-armed regime.
The senior Kim, who died at 69 from a heart attack, had reportedly been grooming his twenty-something son to carry on his militarist “juche” ideology since suffering a stroke in 2008.
"Standing in the van of the Korean revolution at present is Kim Jong-un, great successor to the revolutionary cause of juche and outstanding leader of our party, army and people," AFP quoted the North’s official news agency as saying.
Despite the bluster experts here say a period of volatile uncertainty awaits as the world watches to see if the young man and his inner circle can manage to secure power.
The succession process has been in high gear since Kim was endowed with high military and political titles in September 2010. Since then, he has accompanied his father on military and economic site visits while apparently learning statecraft.
But unlike Kim Jong-il, who emerged as heir in 1980 but didn’t take power until his own father died in 1994, the junior Kim has had precious little time to consolidate power.
“Absolutely anything could happen,” said Hahm Chai-bong, the director of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul. “What happens next depends on how far the succession plan has progressed, how much Kim Jong-un has secured a power base.”
Analysts have long painted nightmare scenarios if Jong-un had failed to burnish his reputation enough among the military and political elite before his father died. This includes military coups, riots, massacres and a mass exodus of refugees in a country believed to have secret nuclear facilities and weapons.
Hahm said one destabilizing scenario that could occur was top- or mid-level officials “fearing they are on the wrong side of a power struggle” defecting en mass to China, the South or even the United States.
One troubling sign that could show Jong-un’s inexperience was the fact that his older brother Kim Jong-nam had publically questioned the hereditary succession plan.
Jong-nam, who lives in Macau and other places, was reportedly passed over for the hereditary transfer. His son, Kim Han-sol has posted comments on social media sites saying he prefers democracy to communism.
“It shows he’s not able to control his uncle and nephew. It is a troubling sign we haven’t seen before in North Korea,” the expert said.
The biggest factor toward stability in the short term is what the North’s main ally, China, does, Hahm said.
“I’m sure China is doing its best to ensure the regime is stable. If anyone has access to what happens inside the North it is Beijing. But everyone has to wait and see.”
Despite being in the international spotlight Kim Jong-un remains little known even to his people, let alone the outside world.
Only recently has the regime begun referring to him publically as a general and erected monuments at sites he visits. This is part of efforts to build a personality cult around him, as was done for his father and grandfather before him.
Attention will also focus on figures close to Jong-un believed to be shepherding him into power. These include Kim Jong-Il's only sister, Kim Kyong-hui and her husband Jang Song-thaek, the country's unofficial number-two leader.
Kim Jong-un is said to take after his father and have the potential to be an equally ruthless leader. He is also said to have studied in Switzerland, be fluent in English and have a penchant for basketball.