By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, September 11, 2009
SEOUL -- The murky process of hereditary succession in North Korea appears to have been suspended, at least for now, and the rise to power of Kim Jong Il's third son may be on hold, according to South Korean analysts and three organizations with informants inside the secretive state.
Kim Jong Un, 26, is the likely heir to the dynasty that rules North Korea, South Korean intelligence officials told lawmakers here in June. His nomination was apparently triggered by the ill health of his 67-year-old father, who suffered a stroke 13 months ago and looked sickly in television footage in the spring.
But Kim Jong Il has since shown signs of improved health. He has appeared relatively robust on state-controlled TV this summer and reportedly acted spry in his meeting last month with former president Bill Clinton, who flew to Pyongyang to secure the release of two jailed U.S. journalists.
"When Kim Jong Il's health was deteriorating and the outside world was speculating on a power struggle, there was a need to launch a visible succession campaign to quell rumors," said Koh Yu-hwan, a North Korea specialist at Dongguk University in Seoul. "Now that he appears to be back in the saddle," Koh said, there is a need to suspend the succession process to prevent elites in Pyongyang from dividing into camps for or against Jong Un.
In an interview Thursday with a Japanese news agency, North Korea's No. 2 leader, Kim Yong Nam, denied foreign media reports that Kim Jong Il has selected his third son to be his successor.
"We haven't even had discussion on such an issue in our country," he told Kyodo News. He added that Kim Jong Il is now running the party, the government and the military "with an abundance of energy."
There is little certainty about internal political developments in Pyongyang, where the government has denied that Kim Jong Il suffered a stroke and has made no official public announcements about succession. No recent photographs of Jong Un have been released, and his name has not been published in official documents.
But three organizations that closely monitor North Korea, two from Seoul and one from Japan, report that the succession process for Jong Un went oddly silent in mid-summer.
The North Korean government issued an order in July that the succession issue was not to be discussed, said Lee Seung-yong, director of Good Friends, a Buddhist charity that says it has informants in North Korea.
The Daily NK, a Seoul-based Web newspaper that often quotes unnamed midlevel officials in the North, reported that "authorities have commanded the people to stop all propaganda" about Jong Un.
The Web site quotes what it said was a July 28 decree from the Workers' Party central committee: "Stop sending out propaganda regarding Captain Kim [Jong Un] in lecture meetings or on Channel 3 [a television station in Pyongyang], and refrain from using the expression, 'Young General of Mt. Paektu.' "
Mount Paektu is the highest peak on the Korean Peninsula and a revered place. North Korea says that the country's founder, Kim Il Sung, organized guerrillas to fight Japanese occupation from bases on the mountain and that his son, Kim Jong Il, was born there.
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.