20 Dec 2011

North Korea pays respects to ‘dear leader’

As Kim Jong-il’s body is put on display in a glass coffin in Pyongyang, the spotlight turns to Kim Jong-un, his father’s likely successor as North Korean leader.

Kim Jong-il’s coffin has been laid out in the Kumsusan Memorial Palace – a mausoleum where the embalmed body of Kim Jong-il’s father, Kim Il-sung, the founder of the communist state, has been on display in a glass coffin since his death in 1994.

Party officials and family have been paying their respects, including Kim Jong-un, who will take over from his father. He symbolically entered the room with top military and Workers’ Party officials and observed a moment of silence.

Like father, like son?

The former leader’s youngest son [pictured below] will soon to be ruling the 24 million-strong Communist state – a man who, in his late twenties, is considered by many to be ill-equipped to take on the responsibility of leadership. Kim Jong-un was taken under his father’s wing in 2008 or 2009, but was only presented to the public in 2010 at a military parade.

Unlike his fellow North Koreans, Kim Jong-un has been exposed to the world outside the communist state after attending school in Switzerland, where he is said to have learned English, German and French, as well as developing a fondness for basketball.

He may be his father’s youngest son, but Paul French, author of North Korea: The Paranoid Peninsula, points out that it was not much of a contest: the oldest son tried to visit Disneyland in Tokyo on a false passport, while his brother is known to have been gambling in Macau, China. “Or you can have the quiet one who has been at a Swiss finishing school,” he told Channel 4 News.

Kim Jong-un (reuters)

International concern

Kim Jong-il’s death has put South Korea and other international allies on high alert because of fears that uncertainty surrounding a successor could result in upheaval. Some analysts are concerned about what could happen if the military reject Kim Jong-un’s authority, in a country known to be developing nuclear weapons and whose only international ally is neighbouring China.

“Kim’s death happened at a very bad time for the North Korean regime,” says Brian Myers, professor of international studies at Dongseo University in Busan, South Korea. “It has really not proceeded very quickly with the glorification of the heir apparent, Kim Jong-un. An average North Korean is still in the dark about his upbringing, his biography, why he is uniquely well qualified to take over the country.”

But Paul French says that being part of the central military command has been a crucial part of his training. “That is where a lot of the decision-making takes place, and similarly to China and Russia, it’s where the Communist party, the state and the army come together. He has been involved in real decision making,” he added.

Cyber warfare specialism

One area where Kim junior is thought to have flexed military muscles is cyber warfare. South Korea has recently been on the receiving end of cyber attacks, including a hit on a major agricultural bank, and Jong-un may have been responsible for setting up the country’s cyber warfare unit a few years ago, James Hardy, IHS Jane’s Asia-Pacific specialist, told Channel 4 News.

The central military command is where where the Communist party, the state and the army come together. Kim Jong-un has been involved in real decision making. Paul French

“It shows traditional army generals that he has something to bring to the table that can establish some authority,” said Mr Hardy.

While his father was known in the West for his eccentricities, as much as his political leadership and dubious welfare record, there is still little information about what kind of ruler Jong-un will turn out to be.

However one thing is certain – he will be as “rational” as his father, said Mr Hardy. “Regime survival is the number one priority. Some of Kim Jong-il’s decisions may have seemed illogical, but there’s always an underlying rationale.”

The country is in mourning until Kim Jong-il’s funeral on 28 December, to which officials say no foreign dignitaries will be invited.

While it is difficult to know how the country operates, it is unlikely that Jong-un will act as a puppet ruler. “It’s all a mystery,” says James Hardy. “We have to accept that. But he would not be able to really rule as a figurehead. The way in which North Korea propaganda works, the leaders need to be more than just a figurehead.”