Why the Secrecy Over Kim Jong-il's Succession?

      December 12, 2009 08:32

      It has been nine months since Kim Jong-un was apparently chosen to succeed North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, but North Korea has yet to issue even a single photo of the younger Kim, the leader's third son, let alone officially announce his selection as successor.

      What can be the reason? One high-ranking North Korean official who defected to South Korea said the Workers' Party has yet to launch an official propaganda campaign publicizing Kim Jong-un's selection because Kim Jong-il "has not officially recognized the succession." Kim Yong-nam, the North's no. 2 leader, expressly denied the succession in an interview with Japanese media.

      High-ranking sources in North Korea say the selection of a successor by the ruling elite in the months after Kim suffered a stroke in August last year progressed without his approval. It remains a top secret just how long Kim was unconscious. He disappeared from public view in August last year and appeared again in February this year. There is a strong possibility that he was out of action for six months. That is why close confidants, including his younger sister Kyong-hui and her husband Jang Song-taek, the first vice director of the Workers' Party, and Yi Je-kang, the first vice director of the Workers' Party Organization Guidance Department, may have rushed to choose a successor.

      North Korean leader Kim Jong-il (left) and his third son, Jong-un

      There are three reasons why they chose the third son Jong-un, ruling out his first and second sons. The first reason is that Jong-un's selection reflected the wishes of the leader. But Kim's affinity to Jong-un does not necessarily mean he wished to appoint him as successor. Past precedent proves this theory. Kim Il-sung preferred his second son Pyong-il over his eldest son Jong-il, yet it was Jong-il who ended up succeeding to the throne. At that time, scores of officials lined up behind Pyong-il, only to suffer the wrath of the victorious son.

      The second reason is that the confidants may be worried about their power depending on who becomes the next leader. Although he fell out of favor, Kim's oldest son Jong-nam has drive and a hunger for power. Hwang Jang-yop, former secretary of the North Korean Workers' Party, said, "The regime would last the longest if Jong-nam became leader."

      It is also possible that Kim's aides may have chosen Jong-un because of his obedience and malleability. But the problem may well have been Kim Jong-il himself. With his insatiable appetite for power, Kim could not stand the idea of his authority weakening with the selection of a successor. After recovering from his illness, Kim may have been angry to see how far the process of choosing his successor had gone. Kim Il-sung saw his power weaken after Jong-il had been chosen to succeed him. Now practically everyone in North Korea knows about Jong-un's selection and it has become impossible to deny it.

      One North Korean who defected recently said, "Until June, lectures were held lauding junior leader Kim or a 'young general,' but there was absolutely no mention of the name Kim Jong-un." It was only through rumors that people found out it was Jong-un who had been appointed as successor. One North Korean official who came to China said, "Recently, Yi Je-kang, one of the confidants that supported Kim Jong-un, ended up being sentenced to six months in a labor camp" apparently because of his involvement in the successor selection while Kim Jong-il was sick.

      Jong-un remains highly likely to succeed Kim Jong-il. Yet the fact that the Workers' Party is not making this official suggests that a totally different outcome is also possible depending on what Kim Jong-il has in his mind.

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