Meet North Korea’s New Boss: Kim Jong Un

Kim Jong Un

With the death of Kim Jong-Il, the eccentric despot who ruled North Korea since the early 1990s, news accounts rely on unreliable reports and broadcasts from state television in the secretive communist country. Early indications point to, as the New York Times reports, the reins of the state being handed to Kim Jong-Il’s youngest son:

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.

But Kim Jong Un, whose rank was officially upgraded from “Brilliant Comrade” to “Great Successor,” remains largely a mystery. Secretive to the core, even Kim Jong Un’s exact age is unknown — he’s thought to be in his late 20s, which would make him the youngest ruler ever of a nuclear-armed nation. He attended boarding school in Switzerland for a few years under an assumed name, and likes basketball, particularly the Chicago Bulls and L.A. Lakers.

The younger Kim only emerged from obscurity in October of last year, when his father, with approval of the ruling Workers’ Party, named him as successor. Since then, Kim Jong Un accompanied his father on tours giving “guidance” to factory workers and other public events like military parades and massive state-organized dance festivals. But some think the short period of public visibility for the younger Kim — he reportedly was only groomed for three years — may indicate a potential weakness in his rule. On Al Jazeera English television, former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Christopher Hill said:

Kim Jong-il was actually groomed by his father to be ruler for more than 20 years. But Kim Jong Un has a long way to go.

One thing pundits seem certain about, however, is that — contra the hopes of politicians for an end to North Korean suffering and regime change — things are unlikely to change that much under Kim Jong Un.

“Surely, one might think, his years spent in the West will have made North Korea’s future ruler painfully aware of just how backward his country is,” wrote Christian Caryl on the New York Review’s website last year. “So does Kim Jong Un’s appointment offer grounds for optimism? Not really.” Caryl explains that the ruling cadre that surrounds the Kims — which is also shrouded in mystery — is unlikely to allow any significant movement in the system. Indeed, Kim Jong Un, according to some analysts, might be overshadowed by his own uncle, Jang Sung Taek, a powerful figure in the Party.

A period of great uncertainty awaits North Korea, and judging by the highly secretive government there, we may never fill in all the blanks about this nuclear-armed mystery youth, Kim Jong Un, and what his leadership will mean.