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All Headlines 11:05 April 02, 2009



By Cheong Seong-chang, Senior Research Fellow, the Sejong Institute, South Korea

In recent months, media around the world have frequently reported on the question of power succession in North Korea, which has been ruled by Kim Jong-il since the death of his father, Kim Il-sung, in July 1994. Drawing the attention of North Korea watchers in Seoul and elsewhere was an article on the matter carried by Yonhap News Agency on Jan. 15 this year. It said North Korean leader Kim Jong-il named his 26-year-old third son, Kim Jong-un, a week earlier to be his successor and gave instructions related with this decision to the Organization and Guidance Department under the umbrella of the Central Committee of the Workers' Party of (North) Korea. It was also reported in the Yonhap article that Ri Je-gang, first deputy head of the department, called in section leaders and higher officials of the department to notify them of Kim's decision and relay the decision to Party chapters in provinces, and that the news on Kim's decision spread throughout the country at a rapid pace. Yonhap, however, failed to identify the source of the weighty news, simply calling it "intelligence."

If Yonhap is correct, North Korea, for the first time in a socialist country, is pushing for a hereditary power succession for three consecutive generations. However, it is not easy to judge now whether or not the Yonhap article is true because there is no evidence either proving or denying the report. But Kim Jong-il has reportedly favored Kim Jong-un more than his two other sons, Kim Jong-nam and Kim Jong-chol. And Kim Jong-un, albeit in his mid-20s, is allegedly furnished with wonderful leadership skills and an ambition for power.

Kim Jong-il's Choice for His Successor

Possibilities are low that Kim Jong-il will appoint his eldest son, Kim Jong-nam, born to him and Song Hye-rim, as his successor because his successorship, if any, would harm his authority; he was not married to Song, who was never recognized by Kim Il-sung as his daughter-in-law. Moreover, North Korea is under a feudalistic political culture valuing officials who are "loyal to the leader" and sons and daughters who are "obedient to their parents." In this environment, possibilities are high that the North Korean leader will designate one of the other two sons, Kim Jong-chol or his younger brother, Kim Jong-un, both born to Ko Yong-hui, as his successor.

Kim Jong-chol has been raised and treated as the virtual eldest son of Kim Jong-il and considered the most favorable candidate for successorship. But there has been a persistent view that he cannot be successor-designate because of his health problems and mild personality. Until as recently as the early 2000s, Kim Jong-un was not only the person mentioned as a candidate for successorship because of his young age. But starting in the mid-2000s, there were rumors on movements recommending him as successor.

Kim Jong-un was born on Jan. 8, 1983 between Kim Jong-il and Ko Yong-hui, a former Korean resident of Japan who immigrated to the North and worked as a dancer of the Mansudae Art Troupe in Pyongyang. Reportedly, Kim Jong-il met Ko in 1975 or so, and they began to live under the same roof a year later. A Japanese North Korea watcher believes Ko is the daughter of Ko Tae-mun, a former Korean resident of Japan who came to North Korea and founded the (North) Korean Judoist Association in 1990. But she was known as the daughter of a Korean resident in Japan named Ko Kyong-taek who died in 1999. Ko also gave birth to a daughter named Kim Yo-jong, or Kim Il-sun in 1987. Kim Jong-chol was born in 1980.

North Korea's Concern About the Succession Issue

North Korea has reportedly been deeply interested in the succession issue since the late 1990s. That movement started with the personality cult of Ko Yong-hui. The army-based personalty cult and her interest in the succession issue has undoubtedly served as a factor to reinforce her two sons' status in the North Korean ruling circle.

The personality cult of Ko started in 1998 or so, and it was developed into a full-blown campaign in 2002 under the initiative of the police in charge of the administration of private affairs. In classified data, North Korea has reportedly used such code words as "respected mother" and "respected mother of Pyongyang" to refer to Ko, describing her as "the figure same as comrade Kim Jong-suk who is a woman hero in anti-Japanese struggle," and a "benevolent teacher leading military servicemen of the People's Army to the only way for loyalty and great achievements, hand in hand with him." Kim Jong-suk is Kim Jong-il's natural mother. The lecture data published by the North in August 2002 shows that Ko was involved in various military affairs, ranging from political education to even military exercises. With Ko respected in the army as the first lady, her two sons, Kim Jong-chol and Kim Jong-un, are in a more favorable position than Kim Jong-nam, the eldest son of the North Korean leader, as promising candidates to succeed Kim Jong-il.

Ko Yong-suk, Ko Yong-hui's younger sister, who successfully sought asylum in the United States in May 1998 along with her husband, Pak Kon, has reportedly told U.S. intelligence authorities that Ko Yong-hui had made preparations for making one of her two sons successor to Kim Jong-il. Their move for establishing the successorship became more active when Kim Jong-nam was arrested in Japan in 2001 for his use of a fake passport and was banished from the country a few days later, as Ko Yong-suk reportedly told the U.S. Kim Yong-sun, however, died in October 2003 after a traffic accident.

Seven months later, in May 2004, Ko Yong-hui died in France while being treated for cancer. She was buried in North Korea the next month. However, it was not until August that year that the news of Ko's death reached Seoul. Some North Korea watchers in Seoul began to believe thereafter that Ko's death negatively affected Ko's scheme to make one of her sons Kim Jong-il's successor. With the death of their mother, Kim Jong-chol and Kim Jong-un lost their strong political supporter. But possibilities are low that there will be a change in the scheme for establishing successorship in North Korea in favor of Kim Jong-chol and Kim Jong-un because Kim Jong-il seems to be continuously on their side as far as the succession issue is concerned.

Kim Jong-un's Early Life

It was confirmed that Kim Jong-chol attended the International School of Berne in Switzerland from 1993-1998, but it was uncertain whether or not Kim Jong-un attended a Swiss school. Kenji Fujimoto, who served as chef for Kim Jong-il for 13 years starting in 1988, has said Kim Jong-un returned home from Switzerland in 1988 along with his younger sister, Kim Yo-jong, although he did not know whether or not she attended a Swiss school. Fujimoto could have had access to members of Kim Jong-il's family until 2001, while he was working for the North Korean leader. Kim Jong-un and his younger sister were earnest in their studies of English, Fujimoto added.

Kim Jong-un was fond of playing and watching basketball games, probably influenced by his elder brother, Kim Jong-chol. While attending school in Switzerland, Kim Jong-chol was a fan of Denis Rodman, who led the National Basketball Association (NBA) in rebounds per game for a record seven consecutive years -- from 1991-1997. He reportedly often participated in basketball games, wearing a Chicago Bulls T-shirt bearing Rodman's No. 9. Because Fujimoto was also fond of playing and watching basketball games, he acted as umpire when Kim Jong-un played basketball along with the son of Ko Yong-suk, among others, he wrote in his book on his days in North Korea.

Fujimoto returned to Japan temporarily in 1996 and went to North Korea again two years later. According to him, the North restructured the gymnasium exclusively for Kim Jong-chol and Kim Jong-un into a basketball court furnished with the same equipment required by the NBA. He also said he had seen them shoot the ball in a wonderful way during a game with a women's team. Meeting them in 1998 for the first time in two years, Fujimoto said they became so much taller and muscular that he could hardly recognize them.

Kim Jong-un did not visit Switzerland since he returned home in 1998, probably because Ko Yong-suk, his maternal aunt, defected to the U.S. along with her husband via Switzerland. Possibilities are high that Kim Jong-il prevented Kim Jong-un, as well as his elder brother and younger sister, from visiting Switzerland again for their security because Ko's defection most likely exposed their identities.

Kim Jong-chol reportedly received his education on military affairs, including Juche-oriented military leadership, in a special class of the Kimilsung Military University from 2001 through April 2006. Kim Jong-un received the same education from 2002 through April 2007. The special military education for them was made allegedly at the request of their mother, Ko Yong-hui, who reportedly told Kim Jong-il that her sons should inherit military-first politics. There is also the assertion that Kim Jong-chol and Kim Jong-un presented their own theories on military leadership in an opening meeting held after their military education and attended by Kim Jong-il, and were applauded by their father. Reportedly, they began to occasionally accompany Kim Jong-il during his visits to military units and appear in public functions starting in early 2007. Noteworthy is the fact that they began to make their public appearances three years after the death of their mother, and at a time when Kim Jong-il had health troubles.

It has been rumored that Kim Jong-un, despite his young age, suffers from hypertension and diabetic symptoms, and that his health problems so deteriorated in 2008 as to hamper his normal activities. There was also a report in August 2008 that he fell into critical condition following a traffic accident. Another report said that Kim Jong-nam, who flew from Pyongyang to Beijing the next month, made a call to Pyongyang to ask about Kim Jong-un's health condition, making credible the report saying he was involved in a traffic accident while driving an auto bike. But his condition was discovered to be not critical.

The Possibility of Kim Jong-il Designating Kim Jong-un as His Successor

If Kim Jong-il actually appointed his youngest son, Jong-un, to be his successor, Kim has undoubtedly decided that he is solid and has leadership, and would be more efficient at seizing and maintaining power than his mild elder brother, Jong-chol. Fujomoto quoted Kim Jong-il as having often evaluated Kim Jong-chol negatively as far as leadership is concerned, saying, "He cannot make it because he resembles a girl." He has argued that Kim Jong-il most favored Kim Jong-un among his sons. Allegedly, Kim Jong-un's face is almost a copy of his father's, and the shape of his body much resembles that of his father's. Some North Korea watchers have used this testimony of Fujimoto as a core base for their argument that possibilities are high that Kim Jong-un will be designated as successor. There have been many incorrect media reports regarding the question of succession in North Korea. For this reason, a prudent position is required, rather than a hasty judgment, at least until certain evidence emerges. Anyway, Kim Jong-un, like his elder brother Kim Jong-chol, is among the figures who are the most promising candidates for the position to succeed Kim Jong-il as the North Korean leader.

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