Who Would Succeed Kim Jong Il?

Rumors are swirling over the reported ill health of the North Korean leader, but who would succeed him if they prove true is a mystery.
2008-09-15
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This handout picture taken on an undisclosed date in 1992 shows the current North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il (R) and then-leader, Jong-il's father, Kim Il-Sung (L) inspecting a soccer ground in Pyongyang.
This handout picture taken on an undisclosed date in 1992 shows the current North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il (R) and then-leader, Jong-il's father, Kim Il-Sung (L) inspecting a soccer ground in Pyongyang.
Photo: AFP

SEOUL—North Korean leader Kim Jong Il missed another key chance Monday to appear in public and kill widespread speculation that he’s gravely ill, with analysts saying there’s no clear indication who might take power if he were to become incapacitated or to die.

Kim, who succeeded his father Kim Il Sung in the only hereditary transfer of power in a Communist country, hasn’t appeared in public since Aug. 14. Speculation about his health surged after Kim failed to appear at huge celebrations marking the 60th anniversary of North Korea’s founding, which included a vast militia parade Sept. 9. On Sept. 15, he missed the Chuseok Thanksgiving holiday, celebrated in both North and South Korea.

“One cannot entirely eliminate the possibility of hereditary transfer of power to one of Kim Jong Il’s [three] sons,” North Korean studies professor Kim Young Hyun at Donguk University said in an interview.

“In case of a national emergency, it is likely that the National Defense Commission (NDC) will assume power, and then, if the situation improves, hereditary transfer of power may be considered at a later stage,” Kim said.

Citing unnamed Chinese officials, Japan’s Kyodo news agency said Kim had suffered a stroke Aug. 14 and underwent emergency surgery performed with the help of five Chinese military doctors. Kim, 66, moves with difficulty and needs a long rehabilitation, it said.

Power struggle?

Kim became leader after his father died in 1994, and analysts say none of his three sons is ready to run the country—mired in economic crisis and prone to nuclear sabre-rattling.

...A relatively new pro-Chinese faction may be strong within the North Korean military."

Yang Moo-Jin, University of North Korean Studies

Professor Yang Moo-Jin at South Korea’s University of North Korean Studies predicted a power struggle if Kim were incapacitated.

“This power struggle could involve one of his sons, Kim Jong Nam or Kim Jong Chul, or elements of the military. Chang Sung Taek, Kim Jong Il’s brother-in-law, is not so powerful, and there would be very strong forces opposing his possible accession to the top spot,” Yang said.

KimJohnIll-Nam200.jpg
This photo taken 19 August 1981 and recently released shows North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il (sitting-L) sitting with his son, Jong-Nam (sitting-R), Kim's sister-in-law Sung Hye-Rang (L-top), Sung's daughter Lee Nam-Ok (C-top) and son Lee Il-Nam (R-top). Photo: AFP Photo: AFP
Strong opposition to Kim Jong Chul was unlikely but “he is young,” Yang said. “The entire leadership of North Korea is over 60. Is it really possible to assume that a young man in his 20s could take on their senior responsibilities? Moreover, his patrons are weak.”

And if the military takes over, China’s influence could grow.

“Outside the country, the North Korean military claims that it’s autonomous, but in reality since there have been many military exchanges with China, it is reasonable to anticipate that a relatively new pro-Chinese faction may be strong within the North Korean military,” Yang said.

Legal succession

Under North Korea’s Constitution, National Defense Commission Vice-Chairman and Vice-Marshall Cho Myong Rok is technically first in line to succeed Kim, Yang said.

“But Cho is old and ailing, so it’s unlikely he would take the helm,” he said, adding that Supreme People’s Assembly President Kim Yong Nam would likely take precedence.

“Other possible contenders could be Chief of General Staff Kim Young Choon, Gen. Yi Myong Su, director of the General Staff’s Operations Bureau, or Gen. Park Jae Kyong, deputy director, General Political Bureau,” he said.

“Other possible candidates could include KPA field commanders, such Gen. Kim Kyuk Sik, Commander of the 2nd KPA [Korean People’s Army] Corps, or Gen. Kim Chong Gak, vice minister of defense.”

Chinese backing

Kim’s former propaganda chief, Hwang Jang Yop, the highest-ranking North Korean ever to defect to South Korea, has meanwhile predicted that little will change in North Korea if and when Kim were to die or becoming unable to rule.

“His regime won’t collapse, and people won’t resist a second hereditary transfer of power,” Hwang, who defected in 1997, told Free North Korea Radio.

“China has basically been maintaining the North Korea regime on life support, and it will not abandon its ally, and will not allow chaos to erupt in North Korea,” he said.

Original reporting by Sung Woo Park for RFA's Korean service. Korean service director: Kwang-chool Lee. Translated and researched by Greg Scarlatoiu. Written and produced in English by Sarah Jackson-Han.

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