Can Kim Jong Un really rule North Korea?

Kim Jong Il's "Great Successor" is an enigma. But what we do know of the volatile, NBA-loving twenty-something isn't promising

Kim Jong Un, the third son of the late Kim Jong Il, was tapped as his father's heir apparent after his older half brother embarrassed the family with a botched trip to Tokyo Disneyland in 200
(Image credit: REUTERS/KCNA/Files)

Amid all the uncertainty surrounding the death of longtime North Korean "Dear Leader" Kim Jong Il is this discomforting fact: His anointed "Great Successor," son Kim Jong Un, is "a callow 20-something of no known experience or confirmed opinions," says Aidan Foster-Carter at BBC News. Here, a guide to Kim Jong Un, and what to expect from his tenure as presumptive head of the nuclear-armed rogue state:

What do we know about Kim Jong Un?

Not a whole lot, and the information we do have is hard to confirm. Jong Un is Kim Jong Il's third official son, by his third wife (or consort), and is probably 27 or 28. He reportedly spent 1998 through 2000 at a prestigious Swiss international school, under the assumed name "Pak Un." He's believed to love James Bond and the NBA, especially former Chicago Bulls star Michael Jordan. According to a former Kim family chef, who uses the pen name Kenji Fujimoto, the "Great Successor" is the "spitting image" of his father. U.S. intelligence officials believe Jong Un is unpredictable and volatile, with a mean sadistic streak.

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How did he end up as heir apparent?

His older half-brother, Kim Jong Nam, effectively lost the job in 2001 when he embarrassed the family by getting busted trying to visit Tokyo Disneyland on a fake passport. There was no official mention of Jong Un until he was presented to North Korea and the world in September 2010, at which point it was made known that he was a newly minted four-star general, a member of the Workers' Party of Korea central committee, and a vice chairman of the Central Military Committee. Kim Jong Il reportedly passed over middle son Kim Jong Chul "because he is like a little girl," according to Fujimoto.

Is Kim Jong Un already in charge of North Korea?

No. He'll apparently have to earn it. The official proclamation of Kim Jong Il's death and Jong Un's role as his father's "Great Successor" didn't name the younger Kim as head of the all-powerful National Defense Commission, general secretary of the Workers' Party, or supreme commander of the army. Kim Jong Il had 20 years as his father's known successor to prepare for taking the reins, while the young, untested Jong Un had a mere 15 months, says Jack Kim at Reuters. So for now, the country is probably being run by a coterie of close advisers the elderly Kim installed around his son in 2010 to guide and protect him. That includes Kim's sister, Kim Kyong Hui; her husband, Jang Song Taek; and military chief of staff Ri Yong Ho. Jang, as vice chairman of the National Defense Commission, was Kim's No. 2 and will act as chief caretaker of the country.

What challenges does Kim Jong Un face?

"It's not going to be an easy succession," and his most important task will be keeping the military on his side, U.C. Berkeley's Hong Yung Lee tells Bloomberg. "We don't know if there is a group of angry generals that may decide enough is enough after two generations of Kims," adds Bradley K. Martin, who wrote a book on the Kim dynasty. Jong Un may also have to avert challenges from his three powerful family protectors. And finally, Jong Un has to keep his oppressed, starving nation from revolting, says Foster-Carter at BBC News. Unless they respect or fear the young heir, the long-suffering North Koreans "may not obey forever, despite the remarkable scenes of publicly orchestrated grief" at Kim Jong Il's death.

How will we know if he's winning control?

Kim Jong Il's Dec. 28 funeral will give an early sense of "who's in and who's out," Peter Beck of the Council on Foreign Relations tells The Wall Street Journal. Whether Jong Un talks, and who sits near him, will provide some of the first visible clues as to how he's faring. The other thing to watch is Pyongyang's key patron, China. Beijing wants a smooth transition, and if Jong Un "is not up to the job," says the BBC's Foster-Carter, we might see passed-over brother Kim Jong Nam — "a known reformer" who lives in China under "Beijing's protection" — start playing a bigger role.

What are Kim's odds of success?

On the optimistic side, "if China were a credit ratings agency, they'll see it as their duty to make sure Kim Jong Un has triple-A status," John Park at the U.S. Institute for Peace tells The Wall Street Journal. And I doubt his aunt, uncle, or other members of the North Korean elite will provoke a power struggle, Andrei Lankov of Seoul's Kookmin University tells Reuters. "They understand that they should hang together in order not to be hanged separately." Still, young Kim isn't the "demigod" his father was, and he has "neither the résumé nor the skills" to rule like his predecessors, says Chico Harlan at The Washington Post.

What happens if he fails?

If "Jong Un overplays his hand, or alienates the generals who form the power behind the throne, then the country could erupt into civil war," says Canada's National Post in an editorial. That would prompt a bloody exodus of refugees, and "the world will be powerless to prevent the death and destruction that will unfold within North Korea." The "nightmare scenario is 'loose nukes' if an overt power struggle" breaks out, says the BBC's Foster-Carter. The U.S., South Korea, and China all have contingency plans in place, but if they don't coordinate, the "already fraught political transition" could "escalate into a confrontation between rival superpowers." Needless to say, "this is an anxious moment."

Sources: BBC News, Bloomberg (2), Foreign Policy, National Post, NPR, Reuters, Telegraph, Wall Street Journal (2), Washington Post

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