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(LEAD) (News Focus) Death of N. Korean leader raises question on power succession

All Headlines 20:00 December 19, 2011

(ATTN: UPDATES with comments by lawmaker and U.S. expert in paras 8-9, 11-12)
By Kim Kwang-tae

SEOUL, Dec. 19 (Yonhap) -- The sudden death of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il triggered speculation over whether his young heir-apparent son, Kim Jong-un, will take over the country as planned.

Kim Jong-un has been groomed to succeed his father as the country's next leader since last year when he was named vice chairman of the Central Military Commission of the ruling Workers' Party and a four-star general.

The younger Kim is expected to try to strengthen his political base by displaying his allegiance toward his late father in coming years as his late father did for the country's founder Kim Il-sung, who died in 1994.

Kim Jong-un was named chair of the North's commission for his late father's funeral, which is scheduled for Dec. 28, according to the North's state media.

North Korea called on its 24 million people to remain loyal to Kim Jong-un, describing him as a great successor and an outstanding leader.

"Under the leadership of Kim Jong-un we should turn our sorrow into strength and courage and overcome the present difficulties," the North said in a notice carried by the North's official Korean Central News Agency. "No force on earth can check the revolutionary advance of our party, army and people under the wise leadership of Kim Jong-un."

Still, it was not immediately clear whether the untested leader-in-waiting, in his late 20s, will be able to lead the country.

Kwon Young-se, a lawmaker of the ruling Grand National Party who chairs the parliamentary intelligence committee, said it remains to be seen whether Kim Jong-un will cement his position as the country's leader.

"So far, there is believed to be no internal agitation," Kwon said, apparently after being briefed by South Korea's spy agency.

South Korea's Unification Minister Yu Woo-ik said last month that there are unfavorable conditions for the power succession.

Victor Cha, a senior adviser at Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, said it is very difficult to say at the moment whether Kim Jong-un will able to lead the country.

"Kim Jong-il had 14 years to prepare to take over from his father Kim Il-sung when he died in 1994. Kim Jong-un has had barely three years," said Cha, who served as senior director for Asian affairs at the White House under the Bush administration. "He has had little preparation in cultivating his own followers. He has no new ideology to associate with in his rise to power."

Kim Jong-un is likely to have to rely on Jang Song-thaek, the late Kim's brother-in-law and vice chairman of the North's powerful National Defense Commission, as the North's young leader builds his political base in coming years.

Jang, who is married to the late leader's younger sister, Kim Kyong-hui, has been involved in security and defense affairs as well as projects to attract foreign investment.

Jang has long been considered a key regent in helping smooth the way for a third-generation power transition to Kim Jong-un.

"There is no alternative except Kim Jong-un," said Moon Chung-in, a professor at Seoul's Yonsei University, noting there won't be big changes if there is no internal strife in the royal family and the party and the military pledge allegiance.

However, it was not clear whether Jang will help Jong-un become the country's next leader, given his strong influence in the North.

There is also speculation that the North's military, a key backbone of the late Kim's rule, could try to keep the heir-apparent son in check and assume power.

Some also speculated that the North's defense minister, Kim Yong-chun, could join hands with Jang to enthrone a new leader, possibly, Kim Jong-nam, the late Kim's oldest son.

Jong-nam is believed to have been staying in China since 2001, when he was caught trying to visit Disneyland in Tokyo with his son and wife on a forged passport.

"Power struggles could be inevitable as Kim Jong-il died at a time when the powers succession was not properly completed," said Song Ho-keun, a professor at Seoul National University.


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