Kim Jong Il, Kim Jong Il health
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Kim Jong Il

Analyzing North Korea’s Succession Plan as Kim Jong Il’s Health Worsens

July 13, 2009 05:00 PM
by Denis Cummings
Kim Jong Il is allegedly suffering from pancreatic cancer, renewing discussion over the transfer of power to his reported successor, his son Kim Jong Un.

Kim Jong Il Reportedly Has Pancreatic Cancer

North Korean leader Kim Jong Il has pancreatic cancer, according to South Korean broadcaster YTN, which cited Chinese and South Korean intelligence reports.

Kim, who has made few public appearances since he reportedly suffered a stroke last August, looked weak at a memorial for the 15th anniversary of his father’s death last Wednesday. He “was deathly—a scrawny, gaunt, almost skeletal figure,” wrote Richard Lloyd Parry in The Times of London.

Kim’s deteriorating health has brought renewed focus to the future of North Korea after his death. He has reportedly named his youngest son, Kim Jong Un, as his successor, but “analysts say the leader's early death or incapacitation could complicate the transition of power,” writes Tania Branigan in The Guardian.

North Korea has become more aggressive in the past several months, conducting missile tests and a nuclear test, each of which were met with international condemnation. It also arrested two American journalists and allegedly launched cyberattacks on South Korean and U.S. Web sites.

“Analysts initially suggested Pyongyang was seeking to grab the Obama administration's attention and force the US to the negotiating table,” writes Branigan, “but some now believe that it is more concerned with shoring up domestic support and ensuring a successful leadership transition.”

Analysis: The transfer of power to Kim Jong Un

Little is known about Kim Jong Un, who is believed to have been born in either 1983 or 1984 to Kim’s third wife. Few outside North Korea knew he even existed until he was mentioned in a 2003 book by one of Kim’s personal chefs, a Japanese man writing under the pseudonym Kenji Fujimoto.

Fujimoto describes Jong Un as the “Prince” and says he is “a chip off the old block, a spitting image of his father in terms of face, body shape and personality.” Citing South Korean reports, Time writes that he is “about 5 ft. 9 in. (175 cm) tall, is overweight (nearly 200 lb., or 90 kg) and may suffer from diabetes.” There has been just one photo of him made public, a black-and-white photo taken by Fujimoto when Jong Un was 11.

Jong Un was educated in Switzerland and at Kim Il Sung Military University. He is said to be very competitive, a trait that has earned him Kim’s favor over his two older brothers: Kim Jong Nam, born in 1971 to Kim’s first wife, and Kim Jong Chul, born in 1981 to his third.

Jong Nam, once thought to be Kim’s preferred successor, has spent most of his life outside North Korea and in 2001 was embarrassingly detained in Japan after trying to sneak into the country to visit a Disney resort. Jong Chul, according to Fujimoto, was dismissed by his father as being “girlish.”

Jang Song Thaek, Kim’s brother-in-law and purported second-in-command, favored Jong Nam, but in the past year shifted his allegiances to Jong Un in a deal that allowed him to “engineer the succession by placing his allies in key posts throughout the regime,” writes Ken E. Gause for Foreign Policy.

It is uncertain what will happen once Jong Un assumes power from his father. “That is expected to result in a weak power structure given Kim Jong-il’s current ill health and unstable political and economic factors in the regime,” writes The Chosun Ilbo, a South Korean newspaper citing intelligence reports from the country’s National Intelligence Service. “Chances are that Jang and his followers could try to seize power from Kim Jong-un and his faction, it speculated.”

There is also a possibility that North Korea would be ruled a “collective leadership of party and military,” reports The Chosun Ilbo. “In this scenario,” says Gause, “Kim Jong-un would be the public face of North Korea, while Jang led behind the scenes.”

Biography: Kim Jong Il

Kim Jong Il is the son of Kim Il Sung, North Korea’s “Great Leader” who led the country from its founding in 1948 to his death in 1994.

Kim Jong Il joined the Korean Worker’s Party in 1961 and was chosen as the successor to his father in the early 1980s. He became North Korea’s leader in 1998, four years after his father’s death. His official title is chairman of the National Defense Commission.

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