Who Is to Become the Successor?

In the light of the 60th anniversary (September 9th) of the founding of the North Korean regime, whether or not Kim’s succession will carry onto the third generation has been a subject of much discussion.

When compared to the official nature of Kim Jong Il’s succession in 1974, when Kim Il Sung was 62, the selection of the successor to 66-year old Kim Jong Il seems rather slow. However, with the resurfacing of stories of Kim Jong Il’s weakening health, it has been proposed that the time for appointing a successor could be quickly approaching. Kim Jong Il suffers from diabetes and a heart condition, and has been showing clear signs of encroaching infirmity, such as limping in recently publicized photos.

Presently, Kim Jong Il has three sons: Jong Nam (37), who was born to movie actress Sung Hye Rim (deceased in 2002), Jong Cheol (27) and Jong Woon (25), who were born to Ko Young Hee (deceased in May 2004), a former dancer in the Pyongyang Mansudae Art Troupe.

Regarding the hereditary succession of power from father to son, suggestion and rumors have been circulating internationally; for example that Kim Ok, who is acting as the de facto wife of Kim Jong Il, and Lee Jeh Gang, the First Vice Director of the Guidance Department, are moving to install Kim Jong Cheol as the successor, or that Kim Jong Nam, who is currently travelling overseas, is ultimately to return to the North with China’s backing.

However, the public discourse in North Korea and in international society regarding the third generation succession issue has been extremely negative lately due to the fact that none of Kim Jong Il’s sons has shown clear signs of being a competent leadership figure.

South Korean experts have differing opinions about the available candidates, but collectively choose the second eldest son Kim Jong Cheol as the most likely.

South Korean experts views on a successor of Kim Jong Il

Jeon Hyun Joon, a senior researcher at the Korea Institute for National Unification, is of the opinion that the actual probability of a successful third-generation succession is low, “Because international discourse has been unfriendly regarding the succession system, North Korea cannot help but feel the pressure,” he suggests, “Kim’s sons do not have the ability to overcome the current threats to the country. Instead, a third party, from the military, for instance, will be elevated as leader.”

Meanwhile, Lee Gi Dong, the Institute for National Security Strategy Inter-Korea Research Office Chief, predicted, “If a sudden mishap involving Kim Jong Il were to occur, then a third-generation successor will assume power behind the scenes. However, if a third-party who is not Kim’s son tries to take the leadership, the elites know very well that a power struggle will result, causing internal confusion. They will therefore try to place one of Kim’s sons in the top leadership position and exercise their power through him.”

Cheong Seong Chang, a researcher of South-North relations at Sejong Institute, also pointed out, “North Korean citizens are also uncomfortable with the ongoing hereditary succession system, but as one knows, the North Korean regime is not one that moves according to the views of its people. If Kim Jong Il selects a third-generation successor, no one will oppose him.”

The reason for experts choosing the second eldest son Jong Cheol as the most likely successor is that “Compared to Kim Jong Nam, the eldest, he has less weaknesses, retains a degree of mystique (Jun Hyun Jun said), an international understanding and a temperate personality (Lee Gi Dong said), and is receiving actual lessons on succession while working at the Guidance Department (Cheong Seong Chang said).”

One thing experts all agree on is that Kim Jong Il will carry out the succession in 2012. That will be the 100th anniversary of Kim Il Sung’s birth and Kim Jong Il will be 70 by then. Every five or ten years, North Korea gloriously commemorates anniversaries. The country promoted this feeling in a New Year editorial, saying, “We will open the door towards a strong country in 2012.”

In the experts’ analysis, the possibility of a power struggle erupting among high officials in North Korea to establish a succession system is low while Kim Jong Il is alive. Those around him that know his absolute power and style of ruling better than any other group, and will not even attempt to rashly discuss anything related to the issue.

Lee Gi Dong pointed out, “In North Korea, there is no mouse that can hang a bell at the neck of the cat. He has prohibited discussing the successor issue or the gathering of power.”

Cheong Seong Chang also predicted, “High-level leaders are more concerned with not displeasing Kim Jong Il, so they are gauging his level of interest in his sons and acting accordingly, but will not get ahead of him.”

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