Extra! Korea

June 6, 2009

Kim Jong-un: Is he or isn’t he the boss-to-be?

Filed under: Kim Jong-il, North Korea — extrakorea @ 2:02 pm

Andrei Lankov, an expert on Korea, has written an article that casts doubt upon the notion that preparations for the succession Kim Jong-un, Kim Jong-il’s youngest son, are already underway.

If these reports are to be believed, Kim Jong-il’s youngest son, Jong-un, has been secretly anointed as a successor to his father, and now full-scale preparations for a dynastic transfer of power have began. These reports are based on a secret telegram, which was allegedly sent from Pyongyang to the North Korean overseas missions.

This telegram was cited by National Intelligence Service officers who briefed the National Assembly’s Intelligence Committee last Monday.

What does it all mean? Before we start answering this question, an important caveat is necessary: reports about Jong-un’s promotion are based on the thinnest of possible evidence. It is not known for sure what was said during the Monday briefing. This was a confidential meeting. The telegram itself (if it exists, of course) might have been misinterpreted or even forged. In other words, while the general public has come to see succession as a hard fact, it is not the case yet.

And even if preparations have begun, Jong-un has a long, uphill journey ahead of him.

However, if we consider what is known or believed to be known, Jong-un seems to be a very unlikely candidate for the job.

To start with, he is very young. Born in 1984, Kim Jong-un is only 25 years old. In a country where age and seniority are very important, this is major handicap for an aspiring leader. His mother died few years ago, so he cannot rely on her and her clan for advice and support.

To complicate things further, Jong-un has been overseas for a long time. Since the late 1980s, the scions of the North Korean aristocracy are often educated in the West, with Switzerland being a preferable choice.

Reputedly, Jong-un spent a few years in Bern, attending an international school there. This means that the new heir designate might have good knowledge of the outside world, but poor understanding of the country he is expected to run. Nothing is known about his administrative exploits, and even if he does have some job (reputedly, in the National Defense Commission), he has not had enough time to acquire sufficient experience.

Mr. Lankov adds that we should know for sure in the near future, by the end of this year, by his estimation.

An Appointment should be accompanied by a long and very public campaign where the future successor will be extolled as another “genius of leadership” and “guiding star of the 21 century”.

Without such a campaign, no appointment can become a fact of real politics. So far, no signs of such a campaign have appeared. The North Korean media remains completely silent on the issue.

Therefore, we cannot rule out that the entire story of “Jong-un’s appointment” might eventually become a non-event, a curious case of journalistic hype based on the misinterpreted or faked evidence. We will know for sure pretty soon, though. If by the end of this year North Korean media starts extolling some (probably unnamed and enigmatic) rising political star, it will mean that the reports about coming succession are correct. If newspapers remain silent for a long time, the entire Jong-un’s appointment story should be discarded.

And in the Washington Times, Andrew Salmon has an article in which some experts on Korea think that Jong-un has been anointed, and some don’t. (Hat Tip to One Free Korea)


A former U.S. diplomat who asked not to be named because he still deals with North Korea told The Washington Times the succession process has begun.

“That doesn’t necessarily mean that [Kim Jong-un] has been ‘named,’ only that the North Koreans have begun to build the necessary ‘myths’ that will be required to foster loyalty, build legitimacy and establish his credibility and credentials as a future leader,” the former diplomat said.

[ snip ]

Kim Tae-woo of the Korea Institute of Defense Analysis said he had “heard many things about Kim Jong-un but nothing official. Senior North Koreans know that if they try a succession prematurely, the system could collapse.”


“The Pyongyang regime places a lot of value on the credibility of its media and propaganda apparatus. This is why they admit that they had a famine in the 1990s, and why they now admit that South Korea is richer than North Korea,” said Brian Myers, a specialist on North Korean propaganda at Dongseo University. “What would they have to gain from keeping the succession secret? They just don’t hide information like this. Kim Jong-il started to be groomed from the early 1970s.”

Maybe yes, maybe no:

Seoul-based analyst Michael Breen, the author of a biography of Kim Jong-il, said that the South Koreans could be jumping the gun. But he also warned against expecting any official announcement from Pyongyang.

“The North Koreans are not just going to come out and say, ‘Here is the new leader,’ or people would say, ‘Well I accepted the king, then I accepted the prince, now do I accept the son of prince?’ That would show they are a feudal monarchy.”

Everyone seems to agree that if Kim Jong-il were to die soon* Jong-un would, because of his youth and inexperience in a country that places a premium on age, probably become somebody’s puppet. If there’s a power struggle, all three of Kim Jong-il’s sons might be used by various factions. However, Jong-nam seems uninterested in the job and to have eliminated himself. Jong-chol is, by some reports, effeminate. North Korea’s second-in-command, Jang Song-taek,** seems to be preparing for a regent role with Jong-un, and with Jong-un reportedly to have a ruthlessness similar to his father’s, then they would seem to be the faction most likely to come out on top. If not, then expect him to have an untimely “accident” shortly after his father passes away.

* In all likelihood he will be dead in four-and-a-half years or less. His recent photos seem to confirm this.

** Except perhaps for General Oh.


  1. […] Filed under: Kim Jong-il, North Korea — extrakorea @ 8:34 am It looks like Andrei Lankov was right (not that I ever doubted him). The telegram that described Kim Jong-il’s succession plans was […]

    Pingback by Hard copy of telegram of succession plans was never seen by intelligence « Extra! Korea — June 10, 2009 @ 8:40 am

  2. […] may even be acting as a kind of surrogate leader for his ailing father. However, Andrei Lankov has shown us that we should take all of this news with a grain of salt. These reports seem to be coming mainly […]

    Pingback by Evidence of North Korean succession plans? « Extra! Korea — June 24, 2009 @ 1:58 am

  3. […] looking for updates on the sinking of a South Korean vessel, I stumbled upon a timely article by B.R. Myers. It’s excellent. (Normally, I try not to block-quote huge swathes of an article, or […]

    Pingback by Timely, excellent article by B.R. Myers on North Korea « Extra! Korea — March 27, 2010 @ 4:44 am

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