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North Korea's Likely Leader: Young And Untested

Kim Jong Un, who is expected to become North Korea's next leader, claps after inspecting the construction site of a power station. This undated photo was released by the Korean Central News Agency on Nov. 4, 2010.
Kim Jong Un, who is expected to become North Korea's next leader, claps after inspecting the construction site of a power station. This undated photo was released by the Korean Central News Agency on Nov. 4, 2010.

North Korea has yet to formally name its new leader, and it may take a while before it does. But there's a clear favorite. Kim Jong Un was anointed back in 2009 to succeed his father, Kim Jong Il, the country's longtime leader, whose death was announced on Monday.

If Kim does follow his father and grandfather as ruler of the secretive nation, he will face huge challenges. He's not yet 30 years old, and yet would be running a society that inherently favors leaders seen as experienced and wise, rather than young and untested.

Kim has had little time to consolidate power or garner support from the nation's military and political institutions. As he begins to establish his own authority, he may encounter internal resistance.

"He just looks like a kid, and that's what he is," says Patrick Cronin, a senior adviser at the Center for a New American Security. "He's not truly going to be respected as a dear or great leader anytime soon."

Without the traditional linchpin of a strong leader keeping subordinates in place, the behind-the-scenes dynamics between familial and bureaucratic rivals for power could quickly become "Shakespearean," says Abraham Denmark, a former Defense Department official.

"Under Kim Jong Il, people often noted how unpredictable and destabilizing North Korea was," says Denmark, who is now an adviser for CNA, a military research organization. "Many people are concerned that now North Korea will be even more unpredictable and unstable, because of questions about how decisions will be made and how power works within North Korea."

Murky Background

He just looks like a kid, and that's what he is. He's not truly going to be respected as a dear or great leader anytime soon.

Little is known about Kim Jong Un. Even his exact age is a matter of some doubt. His birthday is variously given as Jan. 8, 1982 or 1983, making him 28 or 29.

Denmark says that Kim is believed to have spent a good deal of his childhood in Europe. Reports say he was educated in Switzerland under a false name, and learned to ski and to speak English, French and German.

Analysts believe he is Kim Jong Il's son by a dancer named Ko Hyong Hui, who may have been his third wife, or possibly a consort.

Kim's status as the third and youngest son made him an unlikely successor. But Kim Jong Nam, the eldest, lost favor with his father a decade ago when he was caught trying to visit Disneyland in Tokyo on a fake passport. Kim Jong Il apparently held his second son, Kim Jong Chul, in low regard.

Family Planning

In recent years, Kim Jong Il also promoted his brother-in-law and sister to positions of power, possibly with the expectation that they could effectively serve as regents safeguarding the rule of their nephew Kim Jong Un until he became entrenched in the job.

But that also leaves open the possibility that they could challenge Kim Jong Un rather than support him.

"It's very clear that the plan that has been put into place and implemented over the past couple of years is for this third son to take power," says Scott Snyder, senior fellow for Korea studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

"But that was essentially Kim Jong Il's desire," Snyder says. "What we don't yet know is whether that desire will stick in Kim Jong Il's absence."

The younger Kim also needs to establish his credibility with military and political elites far more accustomed to controlling the levers of power than he is. He was made a full general last year, but it's not clear how the military as a whole views him.

"Kim Jong Un has less experience, credibility and authority than his father, and he also has less power," says Cronin, senior director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at CNAS. "Kim Jong Il's brother-in-law and sister probably have more political power at this point."

Show Of Force

After Kim Jong Il inherited power following the 1994 death of his father, Kim Il Sung, the new leader remained in virtual hiding for some time, not officially taking the reins of the state for three years.

It's possible that Kim Jong Un will play a similarly low-profile role, letting more experienced players act as spokesmen for the regime as he works to gain firmer footing.

But Denmark, the CNA adviser, says Kim will want to establish his position more forcefully and publicly than his father did at first.

"His biggest enemy right now is the appearance of a vacuum and the appearance of his inability to control things," Denmark says. "He'll have to be out front, in public, demonstrating his control."

One early test could come next April, when North Korea is planning a 100 th birthday celebration for Kim Il Sung, Kim's grandfather and founder of the regime.

Less Prepared For Power

There was a lot of talk after Kim Il Sung's death that Kim Jong Il would not be able to maintain power for long. His endurance has tempered such predictions this time around.

Still, Kim Jong Il had been groomed for decades to assume control, while Kim Jong Un is a relative novice.

"The issue isn't whether Kim Jong Un will come to power, but who will be controlling Kim Jong Un behind the scenes," says Charles Armstrong, who directs the Center for Korean Research at Columbia University. "Kim Jon Un looks less prepared for leadership than his father was, and the regime seems less ready than it was."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Alan Greenblatt has been covering politics and government in Washington and around the country for 20 years. He came to NPR as a digital reporter in 2010, writing about a wide range of topics, including elections, housing economics, natural disasters and same-sex marriage.