New Leader An Unknown

Questions abound about the young man set to rule North Korea.
2011-12-19
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Kim Jong Un (C) inspects a power station in Jagang province in an undated official photo, released Nov. 4, 2010.
Kim Jong Un (C) inspects a power station in Jagang province in an undated official photo, released Nov. 4, 2010.
AFP PHOTO / HO / KCNA via KNS

As North Korea mourns the death of its despotic leader Kim Jong Il, the capital Pyongyang is immersed in an air of uncertainty over his youngest son and heir apparent Kim Jong Un.

North Korea’s state-run media exhorted the country’s people to rally behind the “Great Successor” in a message Monday, adding that “under the leadership of Kim Jong Un, we should turn our sorrow into strength.”

But little is known of the young man who is most likely to lead the reclusive state in the years to come, other than that he is believed to be about 27 years old and was educated briefly at a Swiss boarding school.

The younger Kim was pushed to the forefront as his father’s successor last year, being granted several political positions and given the title of a four-star general, despite never having served in the military.

And it is unclear exactly how much Kim Jong Un has been schooled in the art of leadership—only that he has much less experience than his father, who was groomed for some 20 years by the nation’s founder, and the younger Kim’s grandfather, Kim Il Sung before his death in 1994.

After suffering a stroke in 2008, Kim Jong Il appeared to step up efforts to find his replacement. One of Kim Jong Un’s older brothers is believed to have been passed over because of his scandalously extravagant lifestyle and the fact that his mother never married the elder Kim.

Building a cult

Since being introduced to the public and international media in September last year during a massive military parade marking the 65th anniversary of the ruling Worker’s Party, the North Korean media has been working overtime to ensure that Kim Jong Un is seen as a natural leader.

The young man traveled extensively with his father inside the country, has taken on a role in domestic and foreign policymaking, and was handed a top position in the Worker’s Party.

Kim Jong Un has clearly been modeled in the same cult of personality as his grandfather, who remains a revered figure nearly two decades after his death. His chubby cheeks and closely-cropped hairstyle make him look very similar to the national hero.

North Koreans are told that Kim Jong Un graduated from Kim Il Sung Military University, that he speaks several languages including English, and is well-versed in the use of technology.

He is known to be a fan of Hollywood movies, much like his father who was rumored to have a collection of some 20,000 films, and of basketball—particularly of the NBA team the Chicago Bulls.

But even the man’s birth date and marital status are unknown. It is believed that Kim Jong Un’s mother was Kim Jong Il’s late second wife, Ko Yong Hui.

And even less is known about how he plans to lead the country of 24 million people, which has been suffering from a widespread food shortage even as the military continues to develop a nuclear weapons program.

Building a power base

One question on the minds of many entails how much power Kim Jong Un will actually wield and how much his rule will be influenced by the established senior military officials and party members who will fight to maintain their privileged lifestyles at the cost of national interests.

Some have questioned whether Jang Song Taek, brother-in-law to Kim Jong Il, could present a challenge to the younger Kim’s power. He was elevated in the government last year and likely will be given a caretaker role in the new administration.

Kim Jong Un’s first test of leadership will come as head of the committee overseeing his father’s funeral ceremony, which will be held on Dec. 28. Being named head of the funeral proceedings hints at the hierarchical status of the younger Kim in politics at large, while Jang Song Taek was listed 19th.

Many expect Kim Jong Un to use a period of mourning in the aftermath of his father’s funeral to consolidate his power base domestically, but it’s unclear how he will interact with an international community that has long viewed his nation as a pariah state.

Analysts have said that despite his age and experience studying abroad, little suggests Kim Jong Un will strive to institute reforms in North Korea, particularly if he wants to secure backing from the established guard of senior leaders.

And should Kim Jong Un become beholden to the nation’s military, it is unlikely that he will implement badly needed changes to the failing state-run economy.

Longtime ally China, which successfully transitioned to a market economy as a communist nation, has already pledged its support for North Korea as it enters a phase of leadership change.

Reported by Joshua Lipes.

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