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North Korean Succession, Unveiled and Demystified

In a deeply Confucian, elder-respecting society, the transfer of power to a youngest son (especially one who looks like an overfed kid fresh out of school) is a tricky exercise.

by
Gordon G. Chang

Bio

October 12, 2010 - 12:02 am
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The North Korean regime is wrapping up festivities celebrating the debut of Kim Jong Un, the youngest acknowledged son of Kim Jong Il. If all goes according to plan — not likely — Jong Un will eventually succeed his father as “Great Leader” of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

On Sunday, we got two clues about the chubby dictator-in-waiting, who joined his dad on the reviewing stand high atop Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang as perhaps as many as 20,000 soldiers, sailors, and airmen marched in perfect precision. First, Jong Un was dressed in dark civilian garb.

And why is his choice of wardrobe significant? The young Kim — he is probably no more than 27 — was made a four-star general at the end of last month. The elevation occurred just hours before the opening of the first major gathering of the Korean Workers’ Party since 1980. And at the long-anticipated and unexpectedly delayed event, Kim was appointed vice chairman of the party’s Central Military Commission.

Yet despite the promotion, the “Young General” showed up on Sunday without uniform, stars, and medals. It is true that the two prior Kims took to wearing street clothes as they ruled. Jong Un’s grandfather, Kim Il Sung, customarily sported Western suits.  His dad, Kim Jong Il, invariably dresses like a garage mechanic, as Madeleine Albright once remarked. Analysts, however, expected Kim Jong Un to appear in the Square on Sunday in the guise of a general to show off his high rank.

After all, the whole purpose of parading thousands of men and women through the capital was to demonstrate to domestic and foreign audiences that the Korean People’s Army stands behind the planned succession from father to son. For Kim Jong Un to attend a military affair as a civilian, therefore, is curious.

We don’t know the reasoning behind the sartorial choice, but it’s possible Kim Jong Il did not want to offend officers who had devoted their lives to earning stars. So the Kim-family transition may not be sitting well with some elements in the military.

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