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Questions Surround Leadership in Pyongyang - Wall Street Journal

Written By Ivan Kolev on Tuesday, January 17, 2012 | 3:37 AM

SEOUL—As North Korea on Tuesday marks one month since the death of Kim Jong Il, the most important question for outsiders trying to deal with the country remains unanswered: Is his young son Kim Jong Eun really in charge?

North Korea has projected an image of a successful transition and stability in its authoritarian government. State media calls the younger Mr. Kim "supreme commander" and produced TV and newspaper reports praising him. It reported several visits he made to military installations and cultural events.


AFP/Getty Images/KCNA This picture taken by North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency on Jan. 1 shows new North Korean leader Kim Jong Eun, front row center, posing for photos with soldiers.

But the regime's New Year's statement, a lengthy message that traditionally contained an exhortation from Kim Jong Il, had no quotations from Kim Jong Eun. The young leader's birthday on Jan. 8—he turned 28 or 29, though outsiders don't precisely know his birth year—passed with little notice in North Korea. That was far different from the national celebrations held on the birthdays of his father and grandfather Kim Il Sung, North Korea's founder and ruler for 46 years.

As well, Kim Jong Eun hasn't met anyone from outside of the country who could provide an assessment of his role.

Diplomats from North Korea's neighbors and other interested countries, such as the U.S., are taking a wait-and-see approach. "It's unclear what kind of attitude North Korea will take" in diplomacy, South Korea Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan said earlier this month. "Even China is also waiting," he added, referring to the North's chief ally.

And with so little information, analysts who watch North Korea are reluctant to draw any conclusions about the direction of the regime and the viability of Kim Jong Eun as leader.

"I can't point to clear evidence of instability in Pyongyang," said Gordon Flake, executive director of the Mansfield Foundation, which studies and promotes U.S.-Asia relations. "But I would be reluctant to assume it is business as usual."

In 1994, when Kim Jong Il took over control of North Korea after the death of his father, he also maintained a low profile for weeks. North Korea sent a special envoy to Beijing seven weeks after Kim Il Sung's death to assure the Chinese that Kim Jong Il was in charge. But there was another sign of action in Pyongyang at that time: The North resumed disarmament talks with the U.S. a month after Kim Il Sung's death.

The behavior of the North Korean regime over the past month closely resembles the period in August and September 2008 when Kim Jong Il was stricken with a stroke-like illness.

In both instances, no meetings or contacts were made with diplomats of other countries. Legal border crossings stopped temporarily and authorities appeared to crack down on illegal ones.

Externally, the most visible activity in both times was the state media's numerous accounts praising Kim Jong Il's actions and steady criticism of countries it routinely portrays as enemies to North Korean citizens: South Korea, Japan and the U.S.

Such adherence to orthodox behavior is typical in authoritarian regimes in a leadership vacuum. And almost no one expects a major change from Kim Jong Il's policies. Rhee Bong-jo, a former vice minister of South Korea's Unification Ministry, said the son's authority derives completely from family heritage. "Kim Jong Eun has no choice but to uphold his father's legacy," Mr. Rhee said.

But Kim Jong Il's death poses a dilemma for the North Korean regime that will be harder to resolve with the usual diet of adulation for the leader and diatribes for outsiders.

The problem is that relying on the young Kim Jong Eun to lead and balance two massive forces—the political party and military—conflicts with a centuries-old tradition in Korea of deference to older people.

Though Kim Il Sung was in only his mid-30s when he became the country's leader, he was operating in a tumultuous period of instability after World War II and overcame the cultural barrier against youth by getting support from the then-Soviet Union and China.

His grandson Kim Jong Eun is several years younger and operating in an environment of where power networks and alliances are more entrenched. As a result, some analysts speculate North Korea will form a collective leadership in which Mr. Kim will share power, most likely with an aunt and uncle and several generals who were all close to his father.

But if that were true, it would signal a broader change in the operations of North Korea's leadership structure, which has for decades been designed in a way that only the leader had full access to all information. "Even if there is some dispersion of power or a committee, there's always a first among equals," said Dan Pinkston, analyst at the International Crisis Group in Seoul.

In the coming weeks, clues in the direction and shape of the North Korean regime are likely to emerge in the way it responds to the mid-February birthday of Kim Jong Il, mid-April birthday of Kim Il Sung and the annual spring training exercise by U.S. and South Korean militaries, which begins late next month.

Write to Evan Ramstad at evan.ramstad@wsj.com

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