TOKYO — With the abrupt death of the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-il, the fate of his isolated, nuclear-armed regime has dropped into the hands of his youngest son, Kim Jong-un, who is such an unknown that the world did not even know for sure what he looked like until last year.
But the biggest enigma may be whether the younger Mr. Kim will be able to hold onto power in this last bastion of hard-line Communism, much less prevent its impoverished economy from collapsing.
For now, the reclusive regime is acting true to form, offering few clues as to what, if any, changes the death of the dictator could bring. It does, however, appear to be offering the first glimmers of an answer to one question that has long dogged North Korea watchers: whether the powerful military and other parts of the nation’s small, privileged ruling elite would go along with the Kim family’s ambitions to extend its dynastic rule to a third generation.
Within hours of the announcement on Monday of his father’s death, North Korea’s ruling Workers Party released a statement calling on the nation to unite “under the leadership of our comrade Kim Jong-un.”
The younger Mr. Kim was also named head of the committee that will oversee his father’s funeral on Dec. 28 — a move that some analysts interpreted as evidence that the transfer of power to the son was proceeding smoothly, at least in the first days. Analysts said they expect the funeral to be an elaborate public display, not only of reverence for the deceased leader, but also of national unity behind the new one.
“The first test of the new leadership will be its handling of the death itself,” said John Delury, a professor of international studies at Yonsei University in Seoul.
Some analysts said Kim Jong-il had used the three years after his first brush with mortality, a stroke in 2008, to successfully build up support for this untested son, who is believed to be in his late 20s. They also said North Korea’s ruling class might also recognize that, at least for now, they have no choice but to accept the succession: the elder Mr. Kim’s two older sons are seen as lazy playboys, while any move to reject the Kim family could undo the legitimacy of the entire regime.
“Kim Jong-il used the years after his stroke to build a consensus among the elite that his son would be the face of North Korea after he was gone,” said Kim Yeon-su, a professor of North Korean studies at the National Defense University in Seoul. He added that this was an easy face to sell: with plump cheeks, short-cropped hair and a hard gaze, Kim Jong-un looks strikingly similar to his grandfather, Kim Il-sung, the regime’s founder, who is still revered as a god.
But what happens after the funeral remains anyone’s guess.
The only precedent is the last transition in the current ruling dynasty, when Kim Jong-il took over after the 1994 death of his father, Kim Il-sung. In that case, the son observed a three-year period of traditional mourning before formally taking over control of the nation, a move that reflects the regime’s odd mixing of the trappings of ancient Confucian monarchy with a 20th-century Stalinist cult of personality.
With the death of Kim Jong-il, most analysts expect the younger Mr. Kim to observe a similar period of mourning, which he will probably use to quickly consolidate his power. While his father had a decade to build support between being named as heir and actually taking power, Kim Jong-un was publicly presented as successor just last year, though analysts say he may have been named within the ruling party in January 2009.
He made his first public appearance on last year’s Sept. 9 anniversary of the founding of North Korea, observing a military parade with his father.
Masao Okonogi, a specialist on North Korea at Keio University in Tokyo, said that during the new leader’s first few years, North Korea would most likely shy away from confrontation with the United States and its allies, like South Korea. This is what Kim Jong-il did after he replaced his father, said Mr. Okonogi. He seemed to hold out an olive branch by observing a 1994 deal negotiated by his father to freeze construction of two reactors suspected of use in the North’s covert atomic weapons program. The North eventually suspended the deal in 2003, three years before testing its first nuclear weapon.
“Look for Kim Jong-un to make some offer, like to restart the Six-Party talks,” Mr. Okonogi said, referring to stalled multilateral negotiations on dismantling the North’s nuclear weapons. “He’ll need to reduce tensions with the United States in order to buy time.”
Given Kim Jong-un’s relatively weak domestic position, Mr. Okonogi and other analysts said some kind of group rule could emerge. Much speculation has centered on whether Kim Jong-il’s apparent second-in-command, his brother-in-law, Jang Song-taek, could emerge as a regent. However, analysts said there were no signs of that on Monday in the propaganda that followed Kim Jong-il’s death.
Beyond that, analysts said there are signs that Kim Jong-un has already begun building up an independent if still limited power base, particularly within the military. Last year, the younger Mr. Kim was proclaimed a four-star general by his father, who also named him vice chairman of the National Defense Commission, the country’s most powerful body. Mr. Kim also appeared to burnish his credentials with the military by overseeing the suspected attack last year on a South Korean warship and the artillery bombardment of a border island.
Mr. Kim of the National Defense University said that Mr. Kim has also been cultivating his own connections in the North Korean military, including Lt. Gen. Kim Yong-chol, 65, a well-known hard-liner of defense issues and head of military intelligence, who appears to serve as a mentor to the young leader. Some analysts said there are also signs that the new leader has already begun purging senior military staff with a younger generation of officers in their 30s and 40s.
“This new generation will be beholden to Kim Jong-un for its power,” said Chang Yong-seok, senior researcher at the Institute for Peace and Unification Studies at Seoul National University.
But this could also leave Mr. Kim beholden to the military, which may cast doubt on one of the biggest long-term questions about the new North Korean leadership: whether it will be able to bring some sort of change to the decrepit regime and its failing state-run economy.
Still, Mr. Chang and other analysts said a change of generation might bring a re-evaluation of the North’s isolation. They say that growing numbers of North Korean officials are visiting neighboring China to see the success of its three-decade embrace of market economics under an authoritarian regime. Recent visitors to North Korea say there are already signs of a growing commercial links with China, including a new class of wealthy traders and a budding influx of Chinese-made consumer goods.
“The new leadership knows it will have to prove its mettle in the first few years,” said Mr. Delury, who visited Pyongyang in September. “Economic reform will be the single biggest challenge it faces.”
By MARTIN FACKLER , December 19, 2011