12.19.11

Inside North Korea's First Family: Rivals to Kim Jong-un’s Power

The hermit kingdom’s untested new leader may have to grapple for power with his powerful aunt and uncle. Philip Shenon on what Kim Jong-un is up against. Plus, more on Kim Jong-il: photos, videos, and breaking updates.

The bizarre family psychodrama at the heart of North Korea’s brutal government is entering a new chapter with the death of Kim Jong il and the succession of his youngest son.

The question now for many Korea-watchers: Will the new, untested, twenty-something leader, Kim Jong-un, declared today as “the Great Successor,” face a threat from within the family, possibly from his powerful – and some believe, murderous – aunt and uncle?

That Pyongyang power couple -- Kim Kyong Hui, Kim Jong il’s sister, and her husband, Jang Song-taek, both 65 -- hold senior posts in North Korea’s nuclear-armed military, and diplomats say they appear to have shown little hesitation in the past in purging, and even killing, internal rivals.

Last year, Mrs. Kim was given the rank of four-star general in the army despite persistent reports that she is a raging alcoholic who has been hospitalized for alcohol poisoning more than once.

Korea scholars say have no reason to doubt South Korean news reports that the cold-blooded ways of Mrs. Kim and Mr. Jang helped explain why their 29-year-old daughter committed suicide in Paris in 2006, overdosing on sleeping pills and alcohol, rather than give in to her parents’ order to return home to their care.

And then there are the new leader’s two older brothers, both considered black sheep of the First Family, who were passed over for succession but who may want their slice of power, too.

His oldest brother, Kim Jong-nam, 39, was quoted by a Japanese newspaper earlier this year as suggesting that North Korea needed to move past a dynastic system of government and that his father had, in fact, hoped to pass along the reins of power to someone outside the family. Kim Jong-nam, now living mostly in China, fell out with his father after he attempted to enter Japan in 2001 with a false passport, apparently in hopes of visiting Tokyo Disneyland.

Evans Revere, a former top American diplomat in South Korea, tells The Daily Beast that whatever the truth about the family’s inner dynamics, the new leader will be relying on his family to hold onto control. “Could any 27- or 28-year-old be prepared for a job like this?” he asked. “The answer is probably not. He will be dependent on other members of the family in advising and making decisions.”

He said there was some hope that Kim Jung-un may be more capable than his limited, if essentially non-existent, resume of government service would suggest. The younger Kim and his father visited China, North Korea’s only true ally, twice this year, and Revere said the Chinese hosts were reportedly impressed by Pyongyang’s despot-in-training.

“Could any 27- or 28-year-old be prepared for a job like this?” asked a former top U.S. diplomat. “The answer is probably not. He will be dependent on other members of the family in advising and making decisions.”

“The things I’ve heard from Chinese and other colleagues suggest that this is a young man who is very sharp and capable, even though he has little background or experience,” said Revere,  who is now with the global consulting firm Albright Stonebridge.

Jae Ku, director of the U.S.-Korea Institute at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, said he believed that, for now at least, the family would rally round Kim Jong-un, and bolster his hold on power.

“I’m sure the military will have a huge say, but I think there’s enough glue in the family, in that legitimacy,” he said. “This is a regime that is very close and has very few moving parts.”

It is a sign of the failure of the world’s spy agencies that so little is known about the inner workings of the Kim family. Western intelligence officials say they do not know exactly how old Kim Jong-un is and where he was born, although he is believed to be in his late 20’s and to have been educated for a time in Switzerland under a false name.

Some of the best, and apparently most reliable, information about North Korea’s first family comes from a tell-all book published in Tokyo by a Japanese chef who worked for the sushi-loving Dear Leader in Pyongyang in the 1990’s. The chef said that Kim Jong-un “resembled his father in every way, including physically.” He said the despot’s middle son, 29-year-old Kim Jong-chul, was out of favor with his father and would be passed over for succession because he was effeminate.