By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, August 16, 2010; A01
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.Volatile variable
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.
More recently, Jang has been a vacation companion and drinking partner to Kim Jong Il; between January and June, Jang escorted Kim on 40 of 77 field trips to military and industrial sites. He also helped to coordinate Kim Jong Eun's education. According to An Chanil, a North Korean defector and an expert at the World Institute for North Korea Studies, Jang is one of only three North Koreans (including the leader's youngest son and his sister) who can talk to Kim Jong Il directly.
On the other hand, Jang has been accused before of growing too personally ambitious. And he's been punished for it, disappearing from public life between 2004 and 2006. According to Cheong Seong Chang, a senior fellow at Seoul's Sejong Institute and an adviser to South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff, Jang was publicly identified in 2003 by high-profile defector Hwang Jang Yop as North Korea's next leader if Kim Jong Il were to die -- a statement that led to Jang's exile. According to Park Hyeong Jung, a researcher at the Korea Institute for National Unification, however, Jang's exile occurred instead shortly after he threw an opulent wedding for the son of a friend. Too many people attended.
Jang wasn't heard from again until January 2006. And that's when his comeback began. Reemerging with a minor position, Jang in 2007 received a familiar job with an emphasis on internal security. In 2008, Jang assisted an ailing Kim with parts of day-to-day leadership. Last year he joined the National Defense Commission, and this year he became its vice chairman. Jang could play a key role in diplomacy, analysts say, with Kim Jong Eun handling domestic issues. (Jang, according to several experts, has a favorable relationship with China, North Korea's chief ally and means of economic survival.)
"By North Korean standards, Jang is an unusual person," Cheong said. "About his personality, people say he's bossy. And because of that he attracts many people around him. For others, that is something to be punished severely; you cannot have your own power. But because he is Kim Jong Il's brother-in-law, he has been redeemed."'Score-settling' ahead
Jang now finds himself in a complex position, experts say. He is more powerful than ever, but his power is limited -- fenced in by other elites in the party and military. Though one Jang rival, Ri Je Gang, died in a suspicious car crash just days before Jang's job promotion, Kim Jong Il is still counting on those like Kim Jong Gak (general of the Korean People's Army), O Kuk Ryol (another National Defense Commission vice chairman) and Kim Yong Chun (minister of the People's Armed Forces) as counterweights. Kim's thinking is that the elites of Pyongyang's old-guard generation can keep an eye on one another while Kim Jong Eun grows into the job. Kim's hope is, those elites share power rather than fight for it.
"I see this as once the old man is gone, you have a bunch of people who are tough people with their own agendas," said Marcus Noland, deputy director at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. "It's not like this happens two weeks after Kim Jong Il dies, but the trajectory they're on is one with score-settling, probably lots of it violent -- a lot of unexplained car accidents. And the young guy may not survive it."
Special correspondent Yoonjung Seo contributed to this report.