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Kim succession reports viewed skeptically

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 3, 2009

SEOUL | North Korea appears to be accelerating a process of succession to ailing leader Kim Jong-il, although South Korean media reports that Mr. Kim's third son has officially been named appear premature.

Yonhap news wire reported that two South Korean lawmakers on the National Assemblys Intelligence Committee had been informed by Seouls National Intelligence Service that Kim Jong-un has been named as successor to his father.

Two influential South Korean dailies, the Dong-a Ilbo, and Hankook Ilbo, likewise reported that the younger Mr. Kim was named successor after last week's nuclear test, and a song praising him was being taught in schools.

However, there has been no official announcement from Pyongyang, which is a source of skepticism among some analysts.

Kim Jong-un's name has not cropped up in official propaganda and -- in defiance of predictions of many in South Korea -- he was not named on any ballots in the March elections to Pyongyangs Supreme Peoples Assembly, a rubber-stamp parliament.

There were unconfirmed reports, however, that he has been named to the National Defense Commission, the most powerful body in the country.

The South Korean government declined comment, but the influential Joongang Ilbo newspaper cited a government source as saying, "There has not been any official nominating process in Pyongyang."

The most important person next to Kim Jong-il appears to be his brother-in-law, Chang Sung-taek, who may serve as a sort of regent to the young Mr. Kim, who is thought to be 26 or 27.

Since last summer, when Kim Jong-il is said to have suffered a stroke, Mr. Chang has been consistently mentioned in propaganda, has joined the National Defense Committee and has been named frequently in connection with Kim Jong-il.

Several North Korea watchers said they were skeptical about the reports regarding Mr. Kim's son.

"The Pyongyang regime places a lot of value on the credibility of its media and propaganda apparatus. This is why they admit that they had a famine in the 1990s, and why they now admit that South Korea is richer than North Korea," said Brian Myers, a specialist on North Korean propaganda at Dongseo University. "What would they have to gain from keeping the succession secret? They just dont hide information like this. Kim Jong-il started to be groomed from the early 1970s."

Kim Jong-il was prepared for power by his father, Kim Il-sung, beginning in 1974 and took power after his fathers death in 1994. Recently arrived North Korean defectors, speaking to foreign reporters at a deprogramming center in South Korea last week, said they had not been aware that their "Dear Leader" had any other sons apart from his eldest, Kim Jong-nam. This son, 38, is believed to live in Macau. He was disgraced when caught attempting to enter Japan to visit Tokyo Disneyland on a false passport in 2001.

A former U.S. diplomat who asked not to be named because he still deals with North Korea told The Washington Times the succession process has begun.

"That doesn't necessarily mean that [Kim Jong-un] has been 'named,' only that the North Koreans have begun to build the necessary 'myths' that will be required to foster loyalty, build legitimacy and establish his credibility and credentials as a future leader," the former diplomat said.

Kim Jong-un, Mr. Kim's second son from his third marriage, is said to resemble his father more than any of the other sons. According to Swiss press reports, Kim Jong-un studied in an international school in Berne, Switzerland =- under a pseudonym -- until the age of 15. His mother, Ko Young-hi, died in 2004.

If the succession reports prove correct, it could make sense of the recent belligerence from Pyongyang: a ballistic missile launch in April, followed by last weeks nuclear test, short-range missile launches and continuing vitriol.

Seoul-based analyst Michael Breen, the author of a biography of Kim Jong-il, said that the South Koreans could be jumping the gun. But he also warned against expecting any official announcement from Pyongyang.

"The North Koreans are not just going to come out and say, 'Here is the new leader,' or people would say, 'Well I accepted the king, then I accepted the prince, now do I accept the son of prince?' That would show they are a feudal monarchy."

Kim Tae-woo of the Korea Institute of Defense Analysis said he had "heard many things about Kim Jong-un but nothing official. Senior North Koreans know that if they try a succession prematurely, the system could collapse."