SEOUL—North Korea's political elite is in a state of intense uncertainty over who will succeed the chairman of its ruling Workers' Party, Kim Jong Il, amid rumors of his failing health, experts say.
Sources inside North Korea say that Kim's third son by a mistress, Kim Jong Un, is currently trying to gather support for his succession bid among the isolated Stalinist country's ruling class.
Kim Jong Il, called the "Dear Leader" by North Koreans, was himself the designated successor of his father, "Great Leader" Kim Il Sung.
Jong Un's position as third-generation would-be successor is considerably less certain than his father's, according to North Korea experts.
"Kim Jong Un’s pedigree is going to be his greatest challenge, because his mother, Ko Young Hee, was a Japanese-born Korean who was never officially married to Kim Jong Il," said James Person, program associate at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.
"Ko Young Hee did not have an official title in North Korea. She was just Kim Jong Il’s concubine," Person said.
Kim Jong Il in his younger days enjoyed an international reputation as a playboy, surrounding himself with his “Joy Brigades,” hand-picked young women who were given the job of keeping the heir to the North Korean leadership happy.
Kim Jong Il’s eldest son, Kim Jong Nam, was born out of his relationship with his first mistress, actress Song Hye Rim. She was a married woman at the time she moved in with Kim Jong Il and was never recognized as more than his mistress.
One generation later, the unofficial status and mixed ethnic heritage of Japanese-Korean Ko Young Hee might now make it hard for Kim Jong Un to win support amid the arcane and finely tuned sensibilities that make up political culture in Pyongyang.
According to Person, Korean-Japanese are looked down on in North Korea because they are seen as having been corrupted by capitalism, and are regarded as belonging to a lower social category. Few Korean-Japanese occupy high-ranking Party, government, or military posts.
Kim Jong Il had to go through a similar competitive process when he inherited Kim Il Sung’s throne with his stepbrother Kim Pyong Il, in which he successfully labeled Pyong Il and his mother “outcasts” of the Kim dynasty, paving the way for himself as the rightful heir of Kim Il Sung.
Person added, "Kim Jong Il did not take possession of the authority his father, Kim Il Sung wielded. Kim Il Sung was a charismatic leader.
The reason why North Korea’s ruling elite accepted Kim Jong Il as his heir was that the son’s succession was the father’s decision, and his will had to be followed."
De facto first lady
Kim Jong Un's case is different, Person said.
"The ruling elite of North Korea is well aware of Kim Jong Il’s third son Kim Jong Un’s pedigree, and may be rather dissatisfied with his background."
Ko Young Hee arrived in North Korea in the 1960s, as the daughter of Ko Tae Moon, an ethnic Korean from Japan, later catching the eye of the North Korean leader-in-waiting as a dancer with the well-known Mansudae Troupe.
Ko played the role of de facto first lady of North Korea until her death in 2004. She and Kim Jong Il had one daughter and two sons, including Kim Jong Un.
According to Person, in order to overcome the hurdles created by Kim Jong Un’s maternal bloodline, it is likely that Kim Jong Un myths and other stories will be created, and education aiming to create a Kim Jong Un personality cult will be put in place.
North Korean state media has recently begun emphasizing the continuation of the “heritage of the revolutionary spirit of Mount Paektu” and “the revered Mangyongdae [Kim Il Sung’s] birthplace” through the Kim Il Sung–Kim Jong Il–Kim Jong Un bloodline.
And South Korean media have reported that propaganda aimed at establishing Kim Jong Un’s personality cult have been distributed to high ranking Workers’ Party officials in Pyongyang in particular, and that patriotic songs indirectly praising Kim Jong Un have already begun to appear.
However, most North Korean defectors believe that since Kim Jong Un is little known to ordinary North Koreans, such efforts may be in vain.
Han, a North Korean defector who arrived in South Korea in 2004, still speaks regularly to his family in North Korea and said they had never heard of Kim Jong Un before he mentioned him.
And former defector Kim Hyung Dok, director of the U.S.-based Institute for a Peaceful and Prosperous Korean Peninsula, said the subject of Kim Jong Il’s family and private life is considered taboo in North Korea, which means that Kim Jong Un isn't widely known among ordinary people.
"North Korea’s economy is desperately struggling for survival, so it will be hard for Kim Jong Un to receive the support of ordinary people and Party leadership alike," Kim Hyung Dok said.
"Most people have no idea who Kim Jong Un is, and I believe that it will be hard for him to gather the necessary support."
Some said Pyongyang would possibly end up with no officially designated successor, amid economic collapse and the threat of worsening food shortages.
"It is possible that no successor to Kim Jong Il will be appointed," said professor Andrei Lankov, a North Korea expert at South Korea's Kookmin University.
"From Kim Jong Il’s perspective...if the fate of his family is more important to him, he will not choose one of his sons as his successor, because North Korea is facing an almost insurmountable crisis," Lankov said.
"If North Korea’s system collapses, the leader will find it hard to avoid responsibility."
Lankov added that even if Kim Jong Un is designated his father’s successor, he is little known to North Koreans, and it will be difficult for him to be more than a figurehead of North Korea’s ruling elite.
He may also be unable to gain recognition by the people or by North Korea’s traditional allies.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Il appeared on television recently as he toured a newly built factory in Pyongyang.
The 67-year-old is widely believed to have suffered a stroke last August.
State television last week showed a gaunt Kim limping slightly and with thinning hair, as he paid homage to his late father Kim Il Sung at a national memorial service.
Original reporting in Korean by S.K.Lee. Korean service director: Insop Han. Translated by Grigore Scarlatoiu. Written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sooil Chun and Sarah Jackson-Han.