Destabilizing speculation

North Korea may be considering future leader after Kim Jong Un

  • Rumors have circulated around North Korean leader Kim Jong Un since coming to power in 2011.
  • Long absences from public view sparked speculation about his health and who would succeed him.
  • Political movements in North Korea suggest preparations for such a shift, but experts said it was impossible to know who would come next.

Few world leaders are as closely watched and shrouded in mystery as Kim Jong Un. Political and diplomatic intrigue has surrounded the dictator, in his late thirties, since coming to power in 2011.

There have been frequent rumors that he is in poor health. His condition and daily whereabouts are so opaque that when he went unnoticed for several weeks in 2020, speculation about his death escalated until he appeared in public again.

While Kim has proven the rumors to be false so far, developments over the past year suggest that behind closed doors North Korea may be bracing for a day when Kim Jong Un is truly gone.

Rule without rules

North Korea Kim Dynasty

Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un.

PA; Getty; KCNA via Reuters

There is currently no known rule of succession within the hierarchy of North Korea’s ruling party, the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK). As a result, analysts can only base their predictions on Kim’s successors on previous transfers of power.

The absence of inheritance protocols is not necessarily intentional. North Korea has only had three rulers in its 73-year history.

Its first boss, Kim Il Sung, appointed his son, Kim Jong Il, as his successor in 1980, 14 years before his death in 1994. Kim Jong Il actively avoided appointing a successor until just before his death, probably in part because he himself had undermined his father’s regime in some ways after his own designation.

Kim Jong Il only named Kim Jong Un as his successor when it became clear that he was unlikely to fully recover from a severe stroke he suffered in the summer of 2008. Even then, it took two years for the official announcement, and Kim Jong Un was only heir apparent for a year before becoming chief himself.

Although young and inexperienced, Kim Jong Un ruthlessly consolidated his power.

In 2013, he executed his uncle, Jang Song Thaek, for “anti-party” and “counter-revolutionary” acts. Jang had been made a sort of regent by Kim Jong Il, and a North Korean defector said the influence Jang had gained made him a target for young Kim.

In 2017, Kim Jong Un had his half-brother, Kim Jong Nam, murdered in Kuala Lumpur. Kim Jong Nam was the oldest son of Kim Jong Il and had been a vocal critic of the regime.

No alternative

Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un in North Korea

Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un visit a power plant under construction in August 2001.

API / Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Kim Jong Un came to power at a considerably younger age than his father and grandfather when they took power and did not need to appoint a successor. He also actively avoided appointing a number two manager.

“The typical Kim Jong Un procedure was to let someone look like they were number two for a year or two and then purge them,” Bruce Bennett, senior defense analyst at RAND told Insider. Corporation.

The purge sometimes means re-education and reduction of rank and status rather than execution.

“He does it regularly because he doesn’t want anyone to appear as an alternative to him,” Bennett said of Kim’s purges. “He wants to be totally in control.”

But several decisions made over the past year indicate that Kim Jong Un and the leaders of the WPK may be preparing for someone to replace Kim.

The first are two articles in a series of rule changes that were instituted in January at the party’s eighth congress.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at a table with senior officials.

Kim with senior officials from the Workers’ Party of Korea Central Committee and provincial Party committees, in an undated photo released on June 8, 2021.


Article 28 states that any member of the five-member Presidium of the Politburo, the highest body of the WPK, can chair a meeting with the consent of the Secretary General, who is Kim Jong Un. This essentially means that Kim is no longer to supervise or even to attend the meetings of the Presidium.

The most striking change, however, is Article 26, which creates the new post of “first secretary”. The title itself is nothing new. Kim Jong Un used it before adopting “president” in 2016 and then “secretary general” in 2021.

Today, however, “first secretary” refers to the first deputy of the secretary general, creating a post similar to that of vice president – a revolutionary change, because neither the WPK nor any ruling Communist party has ever officially appointed a second in command.

However, no one was appointed first secretary and there is no indication that the first secretary would automatically become the leader if the general secretary dies.

“The arrangement put together here raises an interesting question,” Bennett said. “Would number two just take over or would senior Politburo members get together and make a selection?” “

Doubts about the future

A collage of two images of Kim Jong Un in 2019 (left) and 2021 (right), both seen from the front.  It looks noticeably thinner in 2021.

Kim’s apparent weight loss has led to speculation about her health.

Korean Central News Agency / Korean News Service via AP / Insider

Kim Jong Un’s health remains a mystery. Kim not only disappeared from public view for over a month this year, but he also lost a considerable amount of weight – up to 44 pounds, according to intelligence sources.


is so visible that a resident of Pyongyang called Kim “emaciated” on state television. Kim looked even slimmer on a runway last month.

“The truth is, we don’t know what’s going on with his health,” said Sue Mi Terry, North Korea and Northeast Asia security expert. “What we do know is that Kim’s health is going to be the most important generic event for North Korea and for North Korea’s stability.”

North Korea is already facing food shortages, flooding and a struggling economy. Losing Kim Jong Un in the midst of these challenges could be unsettling.

“This is a high-risk, high-impact scenario for North Korea, as it does not have a lined up successor who has been prepared like Kim Jong Il has been for 20 years,” said Terry, who is now director of Hyundai Motor. -Korea Foundation Center for Korean History and Public Policy.

The bigger question, then, is who would succeed Kim Jong Un in the event of death or long-term disability?

Kim Yo-jong, sister of Kim Jong-un attends the women's ice hockey preliminary match between Korea and Switzerland during the 2018 Olympic Winter Games at Kwandong Hockey Center on February 10, 2018 in Gangneung, Pyeongchang, Korea South.

Kim Yo Jong, sister of Kim Jong Un, at the 2018 Olympic Winter Games in South Korea on February 10, 2018.

(Photo by Jean Catuffe / Getty Images)

There has been speculation that since Kim Jong Un’s children are too young, someone from the Politburo or the military might take the initiative and take charge of themselves.

“At the end of the day, it’s something that’s very unknowable,” Terry said, noting that it’s impossible to know if such a person even exists because “by the time we are evaluating something or someone, that means Kim Jong Un himself would know, and this guy would be gone. “

“If someone has that kind of intention, they’ll lower their head and act like they haven’t,” said Terry.

Precedent suggests Kim is unlikely to pick a successor, which could fuel rumors about his health and potentially undermine his grip on power.

But many see her sister, Kim Yo Jong, as the most likely candidate. She is a member of the Kim family and has the full confidence of Kim Jong Un. She could also be counted on to be the regent of Kim’s children.

Last month, Kim Yo Jong was promoted to the State Affairs Commission, the highest governing body of the North Korean government. She also played a central role in overseeing relations with South Korea.

“She is probably the most important figure because [Kim] trusts him, “said Terry.

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