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Kim Jong-il's Successor Dilemmas

Author: Scott A. Snyder, Senior Fellow for Korea Studies and Director of the Program on U.S.-Korea Policy
January 2010 - Volume 33, Number 1
The Washington Quarterly


In the fall of 2008, Kim Jong-il failed to appear at major events celebrating the sixtieth anniversary of the founding of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK). Subsequent international media speculation regarding his health prompted the DPRK in October and early November of 2008 to release photos, many of which had clearly been doctored, in an unsuccessful attempt to quell the rumors. Later in November 2008, inspections led by the Korean People's Army of the Kaesong Industrial Zone and restricted South Korean access to the zone the following December prompted more speculation about North Korea's leadership: Who was in charge? Who would be?

Although Kim Jong-il met with Communist Party of China's international liaison head, Wang Jiarui, in January 2009 on the eve of the lunar new year holidays, there were still lingering doubts about Kim Jong-il's condition. By spring 2009, the beginning of an official process to designate a successor appeared to unfold. In an April meeting of the Supreme People's Assembly (SPA), the National Defense Commission was expanded to include new representation from a variety of public security agencies and to include Kim Jong-il's brother-inlaw, Jang Song-taek. Internal propaganda mechanisms were also mobilized to glorify the short resume of Kim Jong-il's third son, Kim Jong-un. Increasingly, signs emerged that the 27-year-old Kim Jong-un had been formally designated as Kim Jong-il's successor.

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