Although he is hailed as the “Great Successor,” the new leader, thought to be in his late 20s, has neither the résuménor the skills needed to control the country in the rigid manner of his father and grandfather, experts say. And his father’s death has put him in charge long before he could gain the allegiance of older officials who could help him maintain power.
The model that North Korea has clung to for six decades poses its own challenge: The country survives by controlling what its people say and do, harder to manage when the leader is young and untested, not a demigod.
Analysts who have studied North Korea’s second attempted power transfer, which began in September 2010, say they fear several scenarios, including a military revolt or a fight for power among older Workers’ Party members who view Kim Jong Eun as a vulnerable target.
Until late last year, most North Koreans had never seen a photograph of an adult Kim Jong Eun. Pyongyang’s propaganda office had begun taking cautious steps to build the successor’s personality cult, particularly as Kim Jong Il, the “Dear Leader,” struggled with his health after a stroke in 2008. But the process was designed to last years, not months.
“This is really the worst possible nightmare for the North Korean state — this sudden death, and for the son to be taking over,” said Victor Cha, a former White House director of Asian affairs. “This could collapse before our eyes.”
Before Kim’s death, experts and government officials in Seoul and Washington agreed on at least one major point about North Korea’s hereditary succession: The longer Kim, lived, the better its chances. But gauging its success from here on could be difficult, particularly because Seoul and Washington have few ways to gain intelligence about the inner power circle in Pyongyang.
Some experts took it as an early sign of a smooth power handoff that Kim Jong Eun was appointed as head of the committee that will organize his father’s Dec. 28 funeral.
Behind the scenes, Kim Jong Il had spent years surrounding his heir apparent with those who were loyal to the Kim family and nobody else. He purged or banished senior officials who he considered power-hungry. He gave powerful positions to his sister, Kim Kyong Hui, and his brother-in-law, Jang Song Taek — but not without removing some of Jang’s closest friends. If some high-profile officials are gone in the next few months, security experts said, it could be a sign of a fight for power that is threatening Kim Jong Eun’s rise, with caretakers deciding that they would rather be rivals.