The enigma of Kim Jong-un
Long kept out of the public eye, Kim Jong-un is expected to succeed his late father as North Korean leader. FRANCE 24 takes a closer look at a shadowy figure whose swift political ascent has raised questions about his readiness to rule.
Up until two years ago, the only photo of Kim Jong-un, the third son of deceased North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, was a black-and-white snapshot showing an 11-year-old boy.
Now the younger Kim is expected to step decisively into the spotlight: as intelligence officials from around the world assemble and scrutinise the relatively scarce scraps of information that exist about him, Kim Jong-un will presumably take the reins of a country his father and grandfather brought to the brink of widespread famine and turned into a nuclear state.
Kim Jong-un is thought to be in his late 20s, a fact that, when coupled with his lack of political exposure on the international stage, could make for a shaky transfer of authority.
“It’s difficult to say exactly how deep his experience is or how broad his power base is,” Seoul-based Korea specialist Andrew Salmon told FRANCE 24.
Specifically, the biggest question mark hovering over Kim Jong-un is whether or not he has sufficient support from North Korea’s robust military leadership to run the deeply isolated country of 23 million people. The younger Kim takes over from his father at a crucial moment, with North Korea facing food shortages at home and sanctions imposed by the international community in response to the nation’s nuclear weapons programme.
‘A spitting image of his father’
Born to his father’s third wife, Ko Yong-Hi, Kim Jong-un was described in a memoir written by Japanese chef Kenji Fujimoto, who claims to have frequented the family, as “a spitting image of his father in terms of face, body shape, and personality”.
Anecdotes in the book conjure a portrait of Kim Jong-un as fiercely competitive, and the inevitable successor to his father because of the two men’s similar physical and character traits. Another one of Kim Jong-il’s sons, Kim Jong-chul, was deemed by his father as too “girlish” to take over North Korean leadership, according to Fujimoto’s memoir.
Kim Jong-un, for his part, is overweight, said to be diabetic, and possibly suffering from various ailments after his involvement in a car accident. Though there are conflicting reports about his education, he is widely believed to have attended the International School of Berne in Switzerland and a military academy in Pyongyang.
Most of what is known about his career thus far is based largely on information gathered by US and South Korean intelligence officials. In 2004, the younger Kim was said to have joined his father on military inspection missions. Three years later, Kim Jong-un was reported to be working in North Korean surveillance operations that monitor the country’s top officials.
First public appearance in September 2010
Kim Jong-un’s first public appearance came in September 2010 at a meeting of his father’s Workers’ Party, where he was named four-star general and granted positions on the party’s Central Committee and its Military Committee.
Just two months later, he is believed to have played a strategic role in the North’s firing of artillery shells at South Korea, in what is now presumed to have been a bid to boost his military credibility.
Kim Jong-un’s meteoric political ascent continued earlier this year. South Korean press outlets reported that in February he was handed a plum position on the National Defence Commission, the country’s most influential political institution.
Whether or not the manoeuvring to give Kim Jong-un an aura of legitimate successor has convinced senior North Korean political and military officials remains to be seen. Kim Jong-il himself was thought to be much more aggressive in courting and commanding respect from the older guard when taking the place of his father, Kim Il-sung, as head of North Korea in 1994.
But, as Salmon pointed out on FRANCE 24, “Most North Koreans know nothing but the leadership of the Kims” – meaning that for now, at least, the steep shadow cast by his legacy might be enough.