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In North Korea, Is Power Struggle or Smooth Transition Ahead?

September 28, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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The youngest son of the ailing North Korean leader Kim Jong-il was promoted to a four-star general Tuesday in the latest sign that he's the apparent heir to the leadership post. Margaret Warner gets insights on what comes next from Katy Oh of the Institute for Defense Analyses and Barbara Demick of the Los Angeles Times.
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JEFFREY BROWN: Late today, North Korea’s official news agency reported Kim Jong-un was also named vice chairman of the central military commission of the ruling Workers’ Party. Margaret Warner takes the story from there.

MARGARET WARNER: And for more on the apparent succession moves in North Korea, we turn to Kongdan “Katy” Oh, a Korea specialist at the Institute for Defense Analyses. She is the author of “The Hidden People of North Korea.” And Barbara Demick, Beijing bureau chief for The Los Angeles Times, she’s the author of “Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea.”

Welcome to you both. Barbara, let me begin with you. What do you make of this news today? I mean, is this now — is it clear, do you think, that Kim Jong-un is going to succeed his father, or is it murkier than that?

BARBARA DEMICK, The Los Angeles Times: I think it’s clear that Kim Jong-un is daddy’s favorite, no doubt about that. He’s beaten out the brothers. But I don’t think anybody knows until Kim Jong Il dies.

And this is a boy who nothing is known about. Until yesterday, his name had never appeared in the North Korean press. We don’t even really know how to spell it. They say sometimes un or…

MARGARET WARNER: Notice they changed the spelling today.

BARBARA DEMICK: Yes, you had two different — you had two different ones on the prompter. And I would ask Katy about that. But the only photograph of him shows him at the age of about 12. So, he’s the man without a name, the man without a face.

And something that I have been hearing in China — I’m based in Beijing — is that, even in North Korea, there are some rules for legitimacy. Within the party, one needs to establish credibility and presence. So, I wouldn’t say he’s the successor. I would say he’s daddy’s favorite.

MARGARET WARNER: So, not a done deal. But, do you think Katy Oh, that you can read this at least as expressing Kim Jong Il’s, that is, the current’s leader’s wish? And, if so, what explains the appointment of his sister as a general? What is that all about?

KONGDAN OH, Institute for Defense Analysis: Well, Barbara’s points are correct, but I think I will make a little bit different approach. I think that Kim Jong-un is the…

MARGARET WARNER: The son?

KONGDAN OH: … is the designated successor. And appointing him as general at the same time the vice chairman of the party central committee, basically, it’s the crystal clear that Kim Jong Il has anointed him to be his successor.

Why, in that case, Kim Kyong-hui and Chang Sung-taek, the oldest family members…

MARGARET WARNER: That’s the sister.

KONGDAN OH: … appoint the sister, right, is because Kim Jong-un is too young. So, behind this young puppy, they need a regent who will take care of and shielding him from any kind of internal power struggle until he has a smooth power transition.

So, yesterday and today was the day of the third-generation succession completed in North Korea. That’s my view.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, the sister, we talk about her being the regent. If — this presumes, I guess, that the current leader might die fairly shortly, while this young man is still very young. Is that the scenario under which she would be regent?

BARBARA DEMICK: Well, it certainly looks like it, because they have put this whole thing into fast-forward. Kim Jong Il himself was named — was at this point in 1980 when he was 38 years old. And Then he had another 14 years before his father died. And it had also started in the 1970s.

MARGARET WARNER: So, he had a lot of seasoning in the way that his son will not, unless the father lives a long time.

BARBARA DEMICK: Exactly. And I think it was in the 1980s that people started seeing photographs of Kim Jong Il. North Koreans have these mandatory photographs, the father and the son, on their walls, nothing else.

But this is all in fast-forward. So, we are assuming that Kim Jong Il is in very poor health. Otherwise, why would they be going so fast?

MARGARET WARNER: So, do you agree, Katy Oh, that — that — with Barbara that there is just almost nothing known about Kim Jong-un, the son, that is, nothing that would help us assess what it might mean for Korea, what it might mean for Korean-American relations?

KONGDAN OH: Well, in a sense, that’s true, because he was — he’s in college. But, so far, starting from the 2007 and 2008, a lot of North Korean analysts paying attention to the succession politics, and we were kind of like, which one, second son, Kim Jong-chol, and this third son, Kim Jong-un, and basically what kind of works they do and what kind of positions they are getting.

And Kim Jong-un was already put in the party works.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, I guess my question is, can the father do this by fiat, the way he’s trying to do it now?

KONGDAN OH: Well, the — I think that this speed and this incredible soap opera style of approach naming the 27-year-old boy who hasn’t served a single day in the army, overnight, he’s a four-star general, basically telling that Kim Jong Il is really on a running treadmill, because basically his days are limited, and he has to push this issue very, very fast, regardless if Kim Jong-un is really well-groomed or ready. And that’s the reason they need a regent and the Kim Jong Il working together — Kim Jong-un.

MARGARET WARNER: Barbara, is there no rival power center? In other words, the fact that this son was given military appointments, does that mean the military is behind this and the elites are behind this?

BARBARA DEMICK: Boy, I hate to say this on television, but I don’t know. And I don’t…

MARGARET WARNER: That’s actually a very refreshing answer.

(LAUGHTER)

BARBARA DEMICK: Yes. I don’t think we know. Is there an internal power struggle? Very possibly, yes. I — if I were in the military, I don’t know that I would be so happy about a 27-year-old, leader’s son.

MARGARET WARNER: You have done a lot of reporting based on North Korean defectors. Fair to say if he takes over any time soon, he’s going to inherit a country in far worse shape than his father inherited?

BARBARA DEMICK: The country was in bad shape when his father inherited, but the leadership was in — still in good shape. People really loved Kim Il-Sung,. Even defectors I talk have reverence for Kim Il-Sung.

Kim Jong Il has never been that popular. And years now of famine and deprivation, people, I don’t think, believe in the same way they did. I have talked to defectors about Kim Jong-un. And people have said to me — actually, I have talked to North Koreans working in China, so they’re not really defectors. And they have said, if his father runs the country this way, what can we expect from the son?

MARGARET WARNER: And, yet, does the opinion of the people matter?

KONGDAN OH: Well, I think the most interesting changes since the 1990s, the famine that killed about — up to three million is that the so-called common, ordinary people awoke from the nightmare, basically: The state is not a reliable source of our income. They don’t take care of us. And so we better feed ourselves.

And now through the cellular phones, porous borders, and then the defectors from North Korea, maybe up to 20,000 in South Korea, basically, North Koreans are learning that they have to change.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, a lot to watch.

KONGDAN OH: Yes.

MARGARET WARNER: Katy Oh, Barbara Demick, thank you.

BARBARA DEMICK: Thank you.

KONGDAN OH: Thank you.