North Korea's Kim Succession

One afternoon in 1998, North Korea's national basketball team was invited to the private residence of Kim Jong-il to play before a crowd of two – Kim's sons, both keen fans.

At the end of the game, the elder son thanked the team and walked away. The younger one, then 16, ran onto the court and told the players to form a circle around him and share their experiences with him.

This was Kim Jong-woon, (sometimes spelled Jong-un), the youngest of Jong-il's three sons and the one chosen – if there are no slipups – to succeed him. Although the 26-year-old Jong-woon apparently has been dubbed "Brilliant Comrade," he has had little or no training to take over and analysts are questioning whether the country's increasingly hawkish military will look favorably upon his succession to take over the battered, starving, poverty-ridden country. The South Korean news agency Yonhap reported that the nomination was completely unexpected in the country, even among the Worker's Party leadership, and was undoubtedly driven by Kim Jong-il's deteriorating health.

Jong-il is believed to have had a stroke in 2008. In public appearances this year, he looks thin and frail, a sharp contrast to the plump and ebullient Dear Leader of two years ago. The question assumes added urgency with an unconfirmed report by the South Korean broadcaster YTN Monday, citing Chinese and South Korean intelligence reports, that thed North Korean leader is suffering from life-threatening pancreatic cancer.

Certainly, Jong-woon's education has been accelerated. From June 10 to 17, he joined a delegation of senior North Korea military officials for a secret visit to Beijing, Guangzhou, Shanghai and Dalian, during which they met Vice President Xi Jinping and former president Jiang Zemin. Although the trip has been strongly denied by the North Korean government, it was the first known foreign visit by the young man and the first step to try to establish his legitimacy as a successor.

The succession is far from a done deal. "Kim's health is not good. He does not have sufficient force to educate and train his successor," wrote Zhao Boyuan, a Chinese diplomatic specialist, on his blog. "Kim Jong-woon is too young and inexperienced. He has done nothing in politics. With a lack of balance in the political structure, loyalty to the father may not be transferred to the son."

North Korea is the only Communist state in the world where the senior position passed from father to son, from Kim Il-sung to Kim Jong-il. Jong-il wants to do it a second time, meaning that there are only three candidates.

Of Jong-Il's four wives, the second produced one son and the third two. His second wife was a film actress whom he met in 1968 while he was deputy chief of the Propaganda Department. His father never accepted her as a potential first lady, since she was married, three years older than Jong-il and the daughter of a rich landlord, "a class enemy".

She could not appear in public as Jong-Il's official wife and spent much of her later life being treated for depression in Switzerland and Moscow, where she died in the summer of 2002.

Her son was Kim Jong-nan, born in 1971, who went with his mother to study in Moscow and Geneva before returning home to work in state IT companies. In May 2001, he went to Narita Airport, with two women and a four-year-old boy, carrying a fake Dominican passport with the name Pang Xiong (Fat Bear). The Japanese immigration spotted the fake and did not allow him entry.

The disgrace rendered Jong-nan unable to return home for six years, during which he lived in Macau, Thailand and Europe.

The next two sons were from Jong-il's third wife, an actress named Ko Yong-hi, the daughter of a Korean judo star in Japan who took his family home in the 1960s and created the national judo team. Ko was accepted by Kim Il-sung and became the official wife. She was the love of Jong-il's life; she died of breast cancer in 2004.

Her first son was Kim Jong-je, born in 1981. In 1993, he went to Berne to study, registering at school under the name of his uncle, Park, who looked after him. He told his teachers he was the son of a driver/cleaner at the North Korean embassy. But the five-star treatment he received from his 'parents' made the Swiss authorities suspicious and they discovered his true identity.

A shy boy, Jong-je loved Michael Jordan, the Chicago Bulls and the NBA and was a keen basketball player. He also reportedly likes pop music and skiing in the Alps and speaks good English. After graduation, he returned to Pyongyang to work in the Propaganda Department and Workers Party. Jong-il, however, regards him as too 'feminine' and not strong enough to be his successor.

Jong-woon was born in 1983 or 1984. The Japanese cook of the Kim family later wrote in his book that Jong-woon was a naughty child who stole his cigarettes and like to drink beer. At the age of 12, Jong-woon was sent to Switzerland to study. After graduation, he returned to Pyongyang to work. He is the favored son of his father, who regards him as the strongest and most decisive of the three boys; he accompanies him on official tours.

But will his father have time enough to groom him and make him acceptable to the leaders of the Workers Party and the military? He appears to have only taken an official position – a low-level job with North Korea's National Defense Commission – in April, according to North Korea-watchers.

By contrast, Kim Il-sung designated Jong-il as his successor in 1974 and groomed him for 20 years until his death in 1994. Jong-Il is unlikely to have so long.

Chinese scholar Zhao is skeptical. In his analysis, he writes that Jong-Il has never enjoyed the authority of his father because he did not take part in the revolution. Since his father's death, he has reversed the traditional power of Communist countries and put the military above the party. The army has received preference in allocation of budget, raw materials and food.

"He has broken the rule that the party controls the army. This is a bad precedent. As the army's power has expanded, so it has become more corrupt, "Zhao writes. "According to those who have fled from the north, the army exploited its power during the years of economic hardship for its own profit. Kim Jong-il loves and hates them."

The primacy of the armed forces is a major reason for the country's nuclear program, a favored project of the military. The 17 missile launches since March this year have cost at least US$80 million.

This reversal of the traditional power structure has left many leaders in the Workers Party unhappy. Will a young and inexperienced man of 26 be able to master this powder keg?