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North Korea's 'Great Successor' may need guidance

Experts say Kim Jong-il's son, Kim Jong-un, is likely to share the running of the reclusive nuclear-armed state with close relatives and senior figures from the military.

BEIJING // His grandfather and his father wielded almost ultimate power, but North Korea's young new leader, Kim Jong-un will share the running of the reclusive nuclear-armed state with close relatives and senior figures from the military, experts said yesterday.

Kim Jong-un's age - he is thought to be 29 - and his lack of a strong power base means he will have to include his aunt and uncle, as well as the country's top general, Ri Yong-ho, in the decision making process, experts said.

Failure to do so, they cautioned, might encourage these potentially opposing forces to pull in different directions or even to start pushing for other people such as Mr Kim's older brother, Kim Jong-nam, to take the helm of the impoverished communist state.

"Kim Jong-un's father and grandfather did not have to contend with other sources of power," John Swensen Wright, a North Korea expert with Chatham House, a British think tank, said.

"It will be unofficial, but compared to the past it will a collective that runs North Korea."

Mr Kim's family have ruled North Korea since it was founded by his grandfather, Kim Il-sung in 1948. Mr Kim's father, Kim Jong-il died of a heart attack this weekend, after ruling the country for 17 years and only having formally tapped his third and youngest son as his heir a year ago, when he was given the four-star general position of vice chairman of the Central Military Commission.

Little is known about the youngest Kim inside or outside North Korea but observers say there is no way he has the experience needed to run a country, particularly one that is all but ruined economically and agriculturally.

Although the state media has not provided any details about Kim Jong-un, since the announcement of Kim Jong-il's death they have begun to build him into the personality cult surrounding his father and grandfather, calling him the "Great Successor" and saying "he is born of heaven" - an epitaph previously only used for his father.

Yesterday, North Korea's state media said Kim Jong-il's death on Saturday was accompanied by freak natural phenomena, including a fiery glow around the summit of Mount Paektu - according to the official myth, his birthplace and the country's highest mountain — and the cracking of the ice in the lake at the top of the peak.

The noise was "so loud it seemed to shake the Heavens and the Earth", KCNA said.

In a lengthy editorial, the North's main newspaper Rodong Sinmun also urged the country to "rally, rally and rally behind great comrade Kim Jong-un and faithfully uphold his leadership."

But while the transition of power seems to have gone smoothly so far, experts caution this may not remain the case if the young Kim outlives his usefulness before he can build his own network of supporters.

Experts say the elite have agreed to Mr Kim's nominal leadership because they wish to preserve the status quo under the leadership of the dynasty, but Mr Kim has two older brothers, the eldest of whom their father once groomed for succession.

"In Korea's feudal, Confucian, dictatorial, patriarchal culture it is not natural for the first son not to be heir," said Song Ji-young an expert on North Korea at the National University of Singapore.

"At some point, perhaps not immediately, Kim Jong-nam will seek to challenge Kim Jong-un," she said.

To prevent that, Kim Jong-un will have to try to keep his uncle, Jang Song-taek — thought to be a supporter of Kim Jong-nam - happy.

He is married to Kim Jong-il's fiery sister Kim Kyong-hui and is said to be in favour of market reforms, the type which China undertook after the death of Mao Zedong in 1976.

This is thought to put him on a collision course with Kim Jong-un's primary backer, General Ri Yong-ho, who wishes to continue Kim Jong-il's principle of "Military First".

"Of course the unknown in all of this is Kim Jong-un himself, he may turn out to be a supremely political creature who is able to mange all of this, we just don't know," said Dr Swensen Wright

And because even North Korea's elites do not really know either, the formal transfer of his father's power is likely to be slow, experts said.

Mr Kim's official title in state media is the vice-chairman of the party's Central Military Commission.

No date has yet been set for him to take over as head of the 1.2 million strong standing army - the world's fifth largest, the Central Military Commission or the county's ruling Worker's Party.

The official 11-day mourning period is likely to be the immediate reason for that, analysts said, but North Korea's elites may also want take the transfer of official power slowly to allow for a change of course if necessary.

"The country has never had to make a transfer like this before," Dr Swensen Wright said.

"In the end it is safer for them to give him "face time" and see how it turns out".

foreign.desk@thenational.ae