North Korea succession: Kim Jong Il appoints Jang Song Taek caretaker for Kim Jong Eun
Monday, August 16, 2010
SEOUL -- A career politician named Jang Song Taek recently became the second most powerful man in North Korea, injecting a dose of unpredictability into the power handoff playing out in Pyongyang between a father too sick and a son too young to manage the transition alone.
Many believe that the announcement of an agreement designating Kim Jong Eun the successor to his father, Kim Jong Il, could come at a rare government meeting in Pyongyang next month, though there is some disagreement among North Korea experts and analysts about the most likely timetable.
Since its establishment in 1948, North Korea has been ruled by Kims -- first Kim Il Sung, now Kim Jong Il, 68. The expected ascension of a third generation, represented by Kim Jong Il's youngest son, thought to be between 25 and 28 years old, has created a sense of unease among American officials and other experts, who wonder whether Kim Jong Eun is truly prepared to become North Korea's next leader.
It is Jang, the 64-year-old vice chairman of the powerful National Defense Commission, who has emerged as a third figure in any succession. There are other high-level leaders in North Korea, but no one else holds comparable clout. And no one else has been given more trust: put in a position in which he could serve as a mentor to Kim Jong Eun or attempt to seize power for himself once Kim Jong Il passes from the scene, at a time when North Korea's starving population increasingly doubts whether the Kim way is the best way.
"Kim Jong Il said to Jang Song Taek: 'I trust you. Please take care of my family,' " said Choi Jinwook, a researcher at the Korea Institute for National Unification. "But it's a gamble."
The current leader's apparent urgency to set a power handoff in motion may have arisen "because he knows he doesn't have much time left," said Andrei Lankov, a North Korea specialist at Kookmin University in Seoul. A mountain of media reports suggest that Kim Jong Il suffered a stroke in August 2008 and that he is receiving occasional kidney dialysis, fighting diabetes and dealing with depression.
The power transfer in North Korea represents a major security concern for the United States, whose 28,500 troops in South Korea are faced with several unsettling possibilities.
A smooth transfer would install as North Korea's leader a young, unpredictable figure who some American officials fear could prove even more hawkish toward South Korea than his father and grandfather. Forty-six South Korean sailors died in March in a torpedo attack that U.S. and South Korean officials say was carried out by Pyongyang. Conversely, a failed leadership transfer could result in an internal power struggle that U.S. officials see as even more worrying, given North Korea's possession of nuclear material.
Some American officials have become so concerned that North Korea would be more belligerent under Kim Jong Eun that they privately express hopes that his father will remain in power.
Predictions about North Korean leaders and decision-making rely on guesswork and interpretation, but those who analyze the country describe Jang, almost unanimously, as the greatest variable in the succession process. If he follows orders from Kim Jong Il, he will probably spend the next years as a behind-the-scenes kingmaker, assisting Kim Jong Eun as the heir builds his foundation of power. If Kim Jong Il dies soon, though, it is thought possible that Jang or another high-level leader could jump in to fill the power vacuum.
The fragmented details of Jang Song Taek's career have led North Korea analysts to construct two conflicting narratives: Either Jang can be trusted or he cannot.
On the one hand, Jang is part of the Kim clan, brother-in-law to Kim Jong Il, having fallen in love with Kim's sister during his student years at Kim Il Sung University. For the bulk of his career, Jang was the head of North Korea's internal security -- a de facto enforcer. As senior deputy director for the Organization and Guidance Department, he oversaw not just public safety but also surveillance. He sentenced top-ranking officials to prison camps, experts said.