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.
“Kim Jong Il tried to build a system where people owed their loyalty exclusively to him and his son,” said Ken Gause, an Alexandria-based analyst who specializes in North Korean leadership. “But the idea that Kim Jong Eun immediately starts making the decisions is a bit of a stretch. This is not a country that is used to collective leadership. That competition could eventually unravel, and that is one of the potential things that could cause instability.”
When Kim Jong Il formally took power from his father, Kim Il Sung, in 1994, he had worked behind the scenes for almost two decades. He had visited other countries and orchestrated military attacks; he had studied his father’s methods.
But the visible power transfer to Kim Jong Eun began only 15 months ago, when North Korea held a massive political gathering in Pyongyang and named him to several top military and Workers’ Party positions. Some outside experts fear that now, the nuclear-armed nation is more likely to carry out military attacks elsewhere in the region as a way to further burnish Kim Jong Eun’s résumé.
Some Seoul media outlets reported last year that Kim Jong Eun was the mastermind behind a pair of 2010 attacks — the sinking of a South Korean warship and the shelling of a front-line South Korean island.
With its official propaganda, though, North Korea has given only halting signals of Kim Jong Eun’s rise. A common children’s song that supposedly celebrated him didn’t mention his name. His birthday passed without official acknowledgment.
When Kim Jong Il made official trips to China and Russia, Kim Jong Eun stayed at home. When the father traveled domestically, visiting factories and grocery stores, meeting with military units and watching figure-skating events, the son frequently joined him. But most times, for official photos, the younger Kim stayed in the background.
Kim Jong Eun’s profile expanded in September, when he met with the president of Laos, sitting side-by-side with his father. He also attended a large military parade, sharing a VIP booth with his father.
In public, the chubby Kim Jong Eun wore dark Mao-style suits, similar to those worn by his grandfather. His hairstyle — a long, black wave on top, sides buzzed almost to the scalp — was described by the official state newspaper as “sobering and stylish.”
Although a hagiographic campaign hailed him as the “Dear Young General,” it is unclear how much support he has within the armed forces or the ruling party, both of which are dominated by far older men.
For more than six decades, the Kim family has used North Korea as its own family-run business, gathering nuclear weapons, collecting luxury cars, funneling money to the military, paying little attention to chronic food shortages in the countryside and using isolation to hold it all together.
But Kim Jong Il’s death comes at a time when North Koreans have increased access to outside information, adding an obstacle that the Dear Leader never faced in his own succession. In an effort to bring in hard currency, the country has opened up to outside investors. Defector groups in Seoul smuggle in CDs and USB flash drives, loaded with pro-democracy information. With its central food-distribution system all but broken, North Korean officials have allowed for the emergence of private marketplaces — gathering spots where people can potentially share, in whispers, ideas they once kept to themselves.
Correspondent Andrew Higgins in Hong Kong and special correspondent Yoonjung Seo in Seoul contributed to