Shortly before a meeting of North Korea's ruling party, state media in the country reported that Supreme Leader Kimg Jong Il has named his son a four-star general. The move is yet another sign that he is grooming his son to take over for him. It's also the first time that Kim Jong Un has been mentioned by name in public.
American officials told The Daily Beast in July that a recent execution of three top Pyongyang officials—a former top negotiator with South Korea and two senior economic officials, all killed by firing squad—suggests brutal internal maneuvering ahead of the succession of “Beloved Comrade” Kim Jong Un, believed to be in his late 20s and just as ruthless as his father.
North Korea’s stepped-up belligerence toward the outside world, including the sinking of a South Korean warship in March and today’s threat of a military response to joint U.S.-South Korea war games in July, are almost certainly linked in some way to the succession, these officials say.
Given consistent reports that 69-year-old “Dear Leader” Kim Jong Il is gravely ill and often incoherent in the wake of a 2008 stroke, “this kid may have his finger on the button before we know it,” said an American diplomat who has been involved in the past in talks with North Korea about its nuclear arsenal.
He said the CIA and other Western agencies believe the succession will be formally announced—and may take effect immediately—during a rare meeting this September of the ruling Workers Party.
That raises the prospect that the U.S. will soon be confronted with a nuclear-armed North Korea led by an untested, even unsteady young man who is mostly a mystery to Western intelligence agencies.
It is an embarrassment to spy agencies that they can neither produce a recent photo of Kim Jong Un that they are convinced is authentic nor provide his exact birthdate.
They have information about his teenage years at a Swiss boarding school, which he attended under a false name, but that information dates back to before 1998, when he abruptly returned home to North Korea.
Former classmates say the younger Kim favored expensive American-brand sneakers, loved basketball and worshipped Michael Jordan and Hollywood action star Jean-Claude Van Damme.
American officials acknowledge reluctantly that some of the best information they have about the younger Kim comes from a Japanese sushi chef who worked for the Kim family in the 1990s.
“This kid may have his finger on the button before we know it,” said one American diplomat.
The chef, now back home in Japan and willing to sell his story to any reporter or spy able to pay, has described the younger Kim as ambitious and short-tempered—“a chip off the old block” who was his father’s only obvious successor.
Kim Jong Il’s oldest son, Kim Jong Nam, is a bling-wearing gambler who embarrassed his father with his detention in Japan after trying to use a phony passport to enter the country to visit Tokyo Disneyland. According to the sushi chef, the second son is sickly and perceived to be too effeminate to lead the country.
The American diplomat acknowledged frustration within the diplomatic corps. saying, “We are on the verge of a total changeover in the leadership of North Korea—and yet, Mel Gibson and his mistress are the big story for most of you guys in the media.”
Korea-watchers in the U.S. say the signs are unmistakable that Kim Jong Un is his father’s chosen successor—and that there is special danger for the U.S. and its allies in the selection of such an unproved young man.
“This is a 27- or 28-year-old kid who has no revolutionary credentials, no leadership credentials, no party credentials,” said Evans Revere, former president of the Korea Society and a top American diplomat in South Korea during the Bush administration.
“But the finger has clearly been pointed at him as the successor. And it’s now a matter of packaging it, selling it.”
Revere said he thought the recent executions in Pyongyang suggested “ferment inside North Korea” that could be related to the handover—an effort by Kim Jong Il and others to intimidate anyone else who might try to grab power during the transition.
“This may be the regime trying to send a message, trying to tighten up things ahead of the succession,” said Revere, who is now a director of Albright Stonebridge, an international consulting firm founded by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.
Jae H. Ku, director of the U.S.-Korea Institute at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, said there was a stark contrast between this transition of power and the one that occurred when Kim Jong Il took command after the 1994 death of his father—“Great Leader” Kim Il Sung, the nation’s founder.
Ku said the “Dear Leader” was “groomed for the job over a good 20 years” and had solidified his power by the time of his father’s death.
“Now we have a person who has been groomed for the job in less than two or three years,” he said of the Dear-Leader-in-Waiting, Kim Jong Un. “It’s amazing—we know so little about this guy. We have so little to work with.”
Philip Shenon, a former investigative reporter at The New York Times, is the author of The Commission: The Uncensored History of the 9/11 Investigation.