By Tomoyuki Tachikawa
With speculation lingering that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is in grave danger after surgery, many foreign affairs experts have started to ruminate about who would take over should anything happen to him.
Kim — a grandson of the country’s founder Kim Il Sung and the youngest son of late leader Kim Jong Il — has maintained the family dynasty that has continued since North Korea was established in 1948, backed by the Soviet Union, Russia’s predecessor state.
There is no formally anointed successor to Kim Jong Un. However, North Korean watchers say some candidates have emerged, including his younger sister Kim Yo Jong and his uncle, Kim Pyong Il, the younger paternal half-brother of Kim Jong Il.
Kim Yo Jong, also a close aide to the current leader, is seen as the frontrunner, given that North Korea’s sacred “Mt. Paektu bloodline” is believed to give the right to take the helm of the nation only to direct descendants of the founder.
South Korea’s spy agency has said that Kim Jong Un, who is in his late 30s, has three children between the ages of three and 10 with his wife Ri Sol Ju, a former singer and cheerleader, and that one of them is a boy.
“Kim Jong Un’s son is still too young to rule the country. Until he grows up, Kim Yo Jong is expected to succeed Kim Jong Un,” who became North Korea’s supreme leader in the wake of the death of his father in 2011, a diplomatic source said.
South Korea’s legislative think tank has said in a report that Kim Yo Jong’s reappointment in April as a member of the main decision-making body of the Workers’ Party of Korea “will strengthen the governing foundation of the Paektu bloodline.”
This suggests that there is “the possibility of expanding her status and role as official successor,” the National Assembly Research Services was quoted by Yonhap News Agency as saying in the analysis report.
Mt. Paektu is the highest mountain on the Korean Peninsula, where the North says Kim Il Sung led an anti-Japanese partisan group, and Kim Jong Il was born.
Kim Yo Jong was appointed to the ruling party’s politburo in 2017, but it is believed she was sacked after a summit between Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump broke down in February 2019 in Hanoi over the denuclearization of North Korea.
She was elected as an alternate member of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea at its meeting held on April 11, the state-run Korean Central News Agency reported the following day.
Kim Yo Jong first appeared in public in 2011, when her father died. Since 2018, she has been thrust into the spotlight as she accompanied her brother to summits with other political leaders such as Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae In.
In February 2018, Kim Yo Jong visited South Korea as a member of North Korea’s high-ranking delegation to the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, becoming the first immediate family member of Kim Il Sung ever to set foot in the South.
As Kim Yo Jong issued the first statement in her name in March, she would work as a “mouthpiece” of Kim Jong Un ahead, the diplomatic source said.
Kim Jong Un has one living older brother from the same parents, Kim Jong Chol. He also had another older half-brother, with whom he had an estranged relationship, Kim Jong Nam.
In 2017, Kim Jong Nam, who had criticized North Korea’s hereditary succession, was assassinated with the lethal nerve agent VX at Kuala Lumpur International Airport. North Korean agents are widely suspected of being behind the audacious attack.
Kim Jong Chol is described as being a fan of British guitarist Eric Clapton, with no interest in political life. “I’ve heard he does not have political ambition,” a person familiar with the situation in North Korea said, casting doubt on the possibility of him becoming the successor of Kim Jong Un.
There is a rumor that some other country may try to create a “puppet government” in North Korea by setting Kim Han Sol, the first son of Kim Jong Nam, as the new leader, but “This is impossible,” the person said.
In Seoul, Thae Yong Ho, a former deputy ambassador to North Korea’s embassy in London who defected with his family to the South in 2016, has said Kim Pyong Il, the last known son of Kim Il Sung, is “another option” than Kim Yo Jong.
After graduating from Kim Il Sung University in Pyongyang, Kim Pyong Il had served as a military attache in Europe, according to South Korea’s Unification Ministry. Reportedly, he was similar in appearance to his father and did well enough at school.
Since Kim Jong Il became the supreme leader in 1994, Kim Pyong Il spent around 30 years abroad, working as an ambassador to Eastern European nations, including Hungary and Bulgaria.
Late last year, he returned to North Korea from the Czech Republic, although the reasons are unclear. Thae said, “We should not forget the existence of Kim Pyong Il.”
Thae said in a TV program that when he was a vice director at North Korea’s Foreign Ministry, he drank with Kim Pyong Il, then ambassador to Poland.
“I applauded his views on the situation of North Korea and international affairs,” Thae said.
(Dahee Kim contributed reporting from Seoul.)