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The king is dead. Long live the king?

Kim Jong Il, leader of North Korea, is dead. His youngest son Kim Jong Eun is expected to be his successor. Remco Breuker, Leiden Professor of Korea Studies, gives a profile of the new leader.


Kim Jong Il
Kim Jong Il

It was announced today that Kim Jong Il, leader of North Korea, died last Saturday of a heart attack.  According to the North Korean media, he died as a result of over-work.  His youngest son Kim Jong Eun is expected to be the next leader.

A young, inexperienced leader

The question is whether that will actually happen. Kim Jong Eun is a young, inexperienced leader. At the same time he has had several years to prepare for this new role. He has already made his mark on the border with China where he has taken a firm action to bring smuggling under control. The North Korean propaganda machine has for some months been producing legendary reports about Kin Jong Eun, that are reminiscent of the myths that surround his father and grandfather.  

De facto capitalist

North Korea seems to be poised for a schism, but in fact the course was set many years ago. The country has changed drastically in recent years. It has become a de facto capitalist country, where the grey and black markets determine events. The state and the elite are making efforts to promote international trade and to attract foreign investment.


Youngst son Kim Jong Eun to be successor.
Youngst son Kim Jong Eun to be successor.

For Kim Jong Eun, a great deal depends on whether he is able to keep the North Korean state on course. 'There are problems in North Korea, with the division of wealth probably being the most critical. In terms of the economy, the country is performing relatively well, but all the income remains in the hands of the elite. The price of rice is continually rising, and consequently the man in the street can barely afford food. If Kim Jong Eun fails to take steps to rectify this, the fury of the people may be his undoing.


The other factor that will determine whether Kim Jong Eun will become the third generation of leaders in his family is whether he is successful in preserving the security of North Korea. This is something Kim Jong Il did manage to do, which is the reason why the people of the country will mourn his death.  Against all the predictions and analyses, Kim Jong Il managed to safeguard North Korea from foreign invasion and interference.  And that, in a country where the people's concern about the US is very real, is an important condition for a leader's remaining in power.  There are many usurpers in North Korea who would like to seize power. For the time being it seems as if the scenario planned by Kim Jong Il will be carried out and the hierarchical structure of the government will be preserved.  How long this will last is anyone's guess. 

(19 December 2011 / Remco Breuker)

Follow Remco Breuker on Twitter: @koryoinleiden


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