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2009/01/22 10:05 KST
NORTH KOREA NEWSLETTER NO. 38 (January 22, 2009)

   *** TOPIC OF THE WEEK (Part 2)

Speculation Varies on Kim Jong-il's Successor

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- More often than not, there has been talk about who will succeed North Korean leader Kim Jong-il. But last week saw conflicting reports on the taboo issue of power succession in the socialist country.

   Seoul's Yonhap News Agency reported on Jan. 15 that Kim Jong-il had recently designated his third son, Kim Jong-un, as his successor, and delivered a directive on the nomination to the Workers' Party leadership, quoting sources well-informed on North Korea.

   But a day earlier, a Japanese newspaper reported that the North Korean leader would designate his eldest son, Kim Jong-nam, as a head of the socialist state under the collective leadership system.

   In another report from Beijing, a well-informed Chinese source said the Chinese government hopes that Kim Jong-nam will come out at the front of the post-Kim Jong-il regime, supported by Jang Song-thaek, the husband of Kim Jong-il's sister.

   Quoting multiple intelligence sources, Yonhap reported that Kim Jong-il's announcement of his youngest son as successor came earlier than expected and was likely driven by the poor condition of his health after suffering a stroke last August. Kim's 68th birthday is next month.

   If actualized, the junior Kim's succession would be the second father-to-son power transfer in a communist country, unprecedented in modern history.

   "(Kim) delivered a directive around Jan. 8 that he has named Jong-un as his successor to the leadership of the Workers' Party," one of the sources told Yonhap News Agency on condition of anonymity.

   Jong-un, now 25, was born to Kim's third wife, Ko Yong-hi, who died of breast cancer at the age of 51 in 2004. The youngest of Kim's three sons, Jong-un was educated at the International School of Berne and is known to be a fan of NBA basketball. After his return to Pyongyang in his late teens, the North has kept him in a shroud of secrecy. Very little is known about his character.

   Kim Jong-il was 32 when he was tapped as successor by his father and the nation's founder, Kim Il-sung, in a general meeting of the Workers' Party in February 1974. He took over after his father's death in 1994.

   Jong-un's nomination was completely unexpected in the North, even among party leaders, multiple sources said. "The sudden nomination caught even senior members of the leadership by surprise," another source said. "The power elite who have learned of Jong-un's designation are rushing to line up behind the junior Kim, and this climate will rapidly spread across North Korean society," the source said.

   The elder Kim is known to have shunned talks of a power transfer out of fear that the communist country would be subjected to mockery, and that he would immediately become a lame duck.

   The sources said Kim's deteriorating health condition changed his mind. North Korean media have portrayed the leader as healthy and active in recent weeks, reporting on his visits to factories and military units and releasing photographs of the reported tours. But sources say Kim has been mentally feeble ever since the stroke.

   Observers have said that of his children, Kim favored his youngest son. In his bestselling memoir, "I Was Kim Jong Il's Cook," Kenji Fujimoto, a former Japanese sushi chef for the North Korean leader, writes that Kim thought of his second son, Jong-chol, as too effeminate and unfit for leadership, and usually seated Jong-un beside him. "He is the spitting image of his father. Even his body build is similar," Fujimoto says in the book.

   Kim's first son, Jong-nam, is frowned upon due to his liberal Western tastes and prodigal behavior. Moreover, he is not interested in assuming power, observers have said. Jong-nam is 38 and Jong-chol is 28.

   Jong-un refrained from socializing in Berne, spending most of his time outside school at home, according to the wishes of his father, who did not want him to be influenced by the West. When he ate out, he was accompanied by Ri Chol, the North Korean ambassador to Switzerland, who is known to be the manager of Kim Jong-il's secret funds, sources said.

   The youngest son is said to be 175cm tall and weigh about 90kg due to lack of exercise. He reportedly already has high blood pressure and diabetes. Unlike his brothers, no images of him have been captured by foreign media. The sources said Pyongyang will soon launch a propaganda drive to officially raise Jong-un's public standing.

   Kim Ho-nyoun, spokesman for Seoul's Unification Ministry that orchestrates inter-Korean policy, said, "Concerning the reported designation, we have not been able to confirm."

   Koh Yu-hwan, a North Korea studies professor at Seoul's Dongguk University, said the alleged designation is a sensitive issue, but acknowledged it is feasible. The notion of a father-to-son takeover has become an inveterate part of the secretive state, he noted.

   "North Korea has talked a lot about its founder Kim Il-sung, the father of current leader Kim Jong-il. Hereditary succession has become a kind of conventional constitution for the country," he said. "The leader's health has worsened, and he might have wanted to nip in the bud those who are trying to reach for power," Koh said.

   In its report dated Jan. 14, Japan's Yomiuri Shimbun said North Korea is currently going through the process of establishing a collective leadership system, in which Kim's eldest son, Jong-nam, would become the ceremonial head of state in case an unexpected incident takes place in the country.

   Quoting U.S. intelligence sources, the Japanese daily said that the collective leadership system will be composed of three groups: Kim's family, the Workers' Party and the Korean People's Army. But the central figure in establishing the collective system will be Jang Song-thaek, currently the administrative department chief of the Workers' Party.

   In the meantime, Chinese sources well-versed in North Korean affairs said Jan. 19 that China hopes for a future scenario of North Korean leadership in which both Kim Jong-nam and Jang Song-thaek will control the socialist country, even though latter will play the role of Kim Jong-nam's guardian.

   As to the reason of China's preference for Kim Jong-nam, the sources explained that the eldest son has frequently visited China and has a deep understanding of the allied country. "If he succeeds power from his father, China will also likely expand influence over the North through firmer ties between the two countries," the sources said.

   But a ruling party lawmaker in Seoul said that it will take time for the North to decide on power succession in consideration of internal conditions. Rep. Lee Chul-woo, a member of the National Assembly's intelligence committee, said no one but Kim Jong-il knows who will succeed him, adding that the power structure in the post-Kim era has not been decided, as Kim Jong-il is still in control of his country.