Because Kim Jong-Il suffered a stroke in 2008, he had begun to incrementally transfer power to his third son and chosen successor, Kim Jong-un, who is 27 years old. Kim Jong-un was first presented to the North Korean public as the successor in September 2010. Kim Jong-un was recently named vice chairman of the Central Military Commission of the Workers' Party and promoted to four-star general. Three senior North Korean leaders -- General Choe Ryong Hae, General Oh Kum Chol, and Military Director-General Oh Il Jong -- reportedly spearheaded the campaign to anoint Kim Jong-un as the country's future leader. Two other people who reportedly keep Kim Jong-un on a short leash include Kim Jong-il's right-hand man, brother-in-law Jang Song-thaek, and Mr. Jang's wife, Kim's younger sister, Kim Kyong-hui.
The son of Kim Il Sung, North Korea's founder, Kim Jong-il was a chain-smoking recluse who ruled for 17 years after coming to power in July 1994 and resisted opening up to the outside world in order to protect his regime. He repeatedly tested missiles which were advertised to have the capability to strike Alaska, and worked to develop nuclear weapons, imposing serious economic privation upon his people to pay for it. During the closing years of his regime, Kim Jong-il became more bellicose and confrontational. He is believed to have ordered the sinking of the South Korean naval vessel Cheonan that killed 46 sailors in March 2010. Eight months later, North Korea shelled a South Korean island, killing two soldiers, two civilians and setting homes ablaze.
|Kim Jong-un (from 2010)|
While it's tempting to think that freedom may finally be dawning for North Korea, the world knows very little about Kim Jong-un. Since he did receive part of his higher education in Switzerland, he's not ignorant about the rest of the world or other political systems. But it may take time for him to catch on at home. According to an October 2010 Christian Science Monitor article, Kim Jong-un is not very popular with North Korean citizens. One defector told the media that "The regime says Kim Jong-un has inherited the 'revolutionary achievements' and traditions from his grandfather, but the public has no illusions about him. People are simply speechless at Kim Jong-il's greed in placing his young son on the throne." Another defector called Kim Jong-un a scoundrel who relies on his father's power to do whatever he wants, noting that the distrust North Koreans feel toward Kim Jong-il will turn into animosity toward Kim Jong-un, who is said to be just like his father. In addition, there are also doubts among the North Korean military's rank and file about the leadership of Kim Jong-un as they wonder why a 27-year-old would be qualified to be a four-star general.
The rank-and-file of the military could be the key to North Korea's future. Will Kim Jong-un be smart enough to co-opt them? And, if so, how will he do it? Will he merely distract them by buying them new toys at the continued expense of the people, or will he turn into a Gorbachev?