- The Washington Times - Monday, December 19, 2011

SEOUL — There is no sure path for the transition of power in nuclear-armed North Korea, even as its citizens mourn the death of longtime dictator Kim Jong-il and praise the rise of his hand-picked successor, Kim Jong-un, regional analysts say.

Kim Jong-un, 27, who was first presented to the public last year, possesses the titles of power - four-star general, vice chairman of the Central Military Commission - but lacks the decades of experience his father had when he took control of North Korea’s totalitarian regime.

“[Kim Jong-un] may not have enough experience, as well as time, to effectively manage the military and elites who keep the Kim family in power,” said a U.S. official who spoke on background in order to openly discuss developments.

“However, it’s possible that his preparation, to date, has been enough, and the regime elites are too invested in the family, or too cautious to do anything else but support him,” the official added.

Mr. Kim’s brother-in-law Chang Song-taek is widely acknowledged as an important power player in Pyongyang and likely would act as a regent to Kim Jong-un and help preserve the regime.

“I think it will make sense for the power elite to stay stable, so I think they will coalesce around Kim Jong-un,” said Michael Breen, a biographer of the late Mr. Kim. “But whether he can solidify his power, and whether instability will kick in later, is the question.”

Jae Ku, director of the U.S.-Korea Institute at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, said the transition of power will be smooth because “the family is the only game in town.”

He added that formal succession could be postponed to allow for a period of mourning.

North Korea had a three-year mourning period after the death of the regime’s founder and Mr. Kim’s father, Kim Il-sung, in 1994.

However, a major celebration has been planned in April to mark the 100th anniversary of Kim Il-sung’s birth, which could curtail the mourning period.

Mr. Kim reportedly died from heart failure at age 69 on Saturday. He is expected to be entombed Dec. 28 with his father at the Kumsusan Memorial Palace in central Pyongyang, the nation’s capital.

Kim Jong-un, who reportedly will turn 28 on Jan. 8, is an enigmatic figure, having spent most of his life in secretive North Korea but also having studied at a private Swiss boarding school in the mid-1990s.

Since his debut last year, Kim Jong-un’s public role has expanded steadily to build his credentials, and he appeared with his father at several high-level events.

Kim Jong-un is believed to have the mannerisms, personality and ideology of his mercurial father. “Kim Jong-il picked the apple that didn’t fall far from the tree,” said the U.S. official. “He didn’t select a successor who he believed would radically depart from his vision for North Korea.”

North Korea is officially run by the Korean Workers’ Party, or KWP, through the Supreme People’s Assembly. The KWP’s highest body is the Politburo Standing Committee, of which Kim Jong-un is a member.

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