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North Korea's Succession Campaign May Be on Hold, Sources Say

A visitor walks past images of North Korea's Kim Jong Il at an observation post near the border village of Panmunjom.
A visitor walks past images of North Korea's Kim Jong Il at an observation post near the border village of Panmunjom. (By Lee Jin-man -- Associated Press)
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Since July, there have been "absolutely no public relations activities by high-ranking officials vis-à-vis the succession," said Jiro Ishimaru, a Japan-based journalist who edits Rimjingang, a journal of dispatches, photos and videos smuggled out of North Korea by anonymous eyewitnesses. "Before that, it had been almost noisy, and the impression was given that formalization of succession would be soon."

A propaganda song titled "Footsteps," which was widely sung in the North in the spring as part of the state's campaign to prepare the public for Jong Un, has not been heard since July, Ishimaru said.

Lyrics of the song, which had been posted on many factory and company bulletin boards, have been taken down, Daily NK said, citing an unnamed source.

According to Open Radio for North Korea, a Seoul-based group with contacts in North Korea, Pyongyang began holding lectures in June for select audiences to trumpet the "greatness" of Jong Un. He was described as a "genius of literary arts" and a patriot who "is working without sleep or rest" to promote North Korea as a nuclear superpower, according to the organization.

The South Korean government had no comment on reports that the succession campaign in the North has been suspended. "It is our policy not to comment on intelligence or internal matters regarding North Korea," said Chun Hae-sung, a spokesman for the Unification Ministry.

Analysts in Seoul are divided about what the apparent suspension of the succession process may mean. Several said Kim's improved health would enable him to stretch out the succession, better prepare his third and youngest son for power, and persuade elites in Pyongyang that Jong Un is up to the job.

There is a precedent for taking it slow. Before succeeding his father as leader, Kim Jong Il won an internal endorsement in 1974, but it took an additional six years for him to consolidate power.

"Kim Jong Il needs time so Jong Un can get his credits and there are tangible achievements to show," said Cheong Seong-chang, a senior fellow at the Sejong Institute, a Seoul-based think tank.

He said that before Kim Jong Il's next birthday, on Feb. 16, there is a "high chance" that Jong Un will be given an official government position that would make him part of the country's decision-making process.

But Andrei Lankov, a North Korea specialist at Kookmin University in Seoul, said it is premature to talk about succession. "Now that Kim Jong Il has recovered, he has pushed aside the idea of having an heir," Lankov said.

There is also speculation among analysts that Jong Un may have run afoul of high-level officials in the Workers' Party or the National Defense Commission, which is the country's supreme ruling body and is chaired by his father.

"Kim Jong Un may have a head start, but the succession game isn't over yet," said Yoo Ho-yeol, a North Korea specialist at Korea University in Seoul.

Jong Un's eldest brother, Kim Jong Nam, may also still be in the running, Yoo said.

Jong Nam has many contacts in China, but many thought he lost his chance to succeed his father after he tried to sneak into Japan in 2001 using a phony passport. He told Japanese officials that he wanted to go to Disneyland in Tokyo.

In 1998, as a teenager, Jong Un enrolled under a fake name at a German-speaking state school in Liebefeld, Switzerland. He left the school in 2000 and is reported to have attended Pyongyang's Kim Il Sung Military University, an officer training school. Little else is known about him.

Special correspondents June Lee in Seoul and Akiko Yamamoto in Tokyo contributed to this report.

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