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Kim Jong-il had been seen as the heir apparent to his father, North Korea’s first dictator Kim Il-sung, as far back as 1982 and spent a decade building his power base, finally taking power in 1994. But Kim Jong-un was only named as successor last year — hardly enough time to establish himself among the secretive and paranoid elites in the military and Communist party whose support is necessary to lead.
There is also the question of Kim’s youth. In a society that greatly respects age and experience, the 27-year-old Kim does not inspire universal confidence. Radio Free North Korea quoted one North Korean referring to Kim Jong-un as a “baby.”
There is very little known about Kim Jong-un. Even his age is in dispute, with some media reports saying he is 25 while others say he is 27 or 28. A hint of what kind of person he is came via this article in the Daily Mirror, which interviewed some of his teachers and school chums from his days as a student at Liebefeld-Steinholzi school in Switzerland.
Kim entered the school under an assumed name, never letting on that he was the son of North Korea’s leader. According to the article, Kim was something of a jock, playing basketball constantly and was apparently a huge fan of the NBA. One teacher described him as “well-integrated, diligent and ambitious.” He was “fiercely competitive” on the basketball court and was apparently “normal” in almost every respect; going out for pizza with his friends, playing video games, and watching martial arts movies. He also had a huge collection of expensive athletic shoes worth thousands of dollars.
In the middle of the term in 2000, he left suddenly never to return. It is believed he was enrolled in a prestigious military school, although he evidently never joined the military.
What the US and other regional states desire more than anything is stability in the transition. The most militarized country in the world, North Korea is armed with nuclear weapons and has a history of committing unexpected and provocative acts. But the US and other regional powers are hopeful that the change in leadership could mean progress in talks that would bring vital food supplies to Pyongyang and restart the stalled discussions over eliminating the North’s nuclear arsenal.
Current negotiations over food aid to the impoverished and starving nation were at an impasse when the elder Kim died. Resumption of rice shipments to the starving people of North Korea hinges on guarantees that the food will go to those who need it most and not end up in the hands of the military or the elites. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said through a spokesperson that the United States would be looking for signs of change from the new leadership. “We want to see the new leadership of the DPRK (North Korea) take their country in the direction of denuclearization, in the direction of compliance with their international obligations and commitments,” said Clinton. The nuclear negotiations, suspended in 2008, were conducted under the auspices of the “six party talks” that included North Korea, the US, Japan, China, Russia, and South Korea. Food aid has been suspended since 2010.
The State Department said there was a brief meeting between US and North Korean diplomats at the United Nations where “technical” details of the food aid talks were discussed. Other than that, there has been no official contact and there are no plans to send a US representative to attend Kim’s funeral.
Knowledgeable observers will note details about every public appearance by Kim Jong-un — who he’s standing next to, who he mentions in speeches, even the order of seating at public banquets. What these observers cannot do, however, is peer into the inner workings of what is arguably the most secretive state on earth and glean intent from the men who will now be locked in a struggle for power, looking to emerge as North Korea’s next “Dear Leader.”
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