- - Sunday, December 18, 2011

SEOUL — Questions abound about whether North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il’s 28-year-old son is fully empowered to take control of the totalitarian, nuclear-armed regime in the wake of Mr. Kim’s death.

Mr. Kim, who reportedly died of heart failure Saturday at age 69, is expected to be entombed Dec. 28 with his father, “Eternal President” Kim Il-sung, at the Kumsusan Memorial Palace in central Pyongyang, the nation’s capital.

Kim Jong-il’s handpicked successor and heir apparent, Kim Jong-un, is in charge of the funeral arrangements, according to North Korean media reports.

North Koreans were mourning the death of the “Dear Leader.” State media eulogized him as a “great master of politics and illustrious commander born of heaven,” and state TV showed people weeping.

Meanwhile, authorities were telling people in North Korea’s border province with China not to hold gatherings of more than five people and to shut down markets, according to Ha Tae-kyung of Seoul-based Radio Free North Korea.

Foreigners are being asked to leave, and North Koreans outside the country are being asked to return, said Mr. Ha, who maintains telephone contacts inside North Korea.

South Korean TV news also reported that guards have been increased along the China border and two North Korean missiles were test-fired into the Sea of Japan on Monday, the day Mr. Kim’s death was reported.

While experts in Seoul expect no regime instability in the near term, questions linger about whether the younger Mr. Kim — whom state media lauded as “the great successor to the revolutionary cause … outstanding leader of our party, army and people” — has the experience and support to run the country.

Kim Jong-un is Kim Jong-il’s third son. He was first presented to the public last year, when he was made a four-star general, though there is no evidence that he has served in the ranks. He has been widely pictured alongside his father on official visits but has no apparent revolutionary credentials of his own.

“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 Kim Jong-il. “But whether he can solidify his power, and whether instability will kick in later, is the question.”

“Though nobody is in charge as a person, a system is there,” said Choi Jin-wook, senior North Korea researcher at Seoul’s Korea Institute of National Unification. “But North Korea has been accustomed to having a paramount leader for all of their history. This is the first time they have had the experience of not having that. Kim Jong-un is the heir apparent, but not quite ready.”

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

However, Kim Jong-il exercised power via a higher body, the National Defense Commission (NDC), of which he was chairman — his official title. (His father, Kim Il-sung, who died in 1994, took the title of “Eternal President.”)

The NDC is composed of the army chief of staff, the defense minister, a vice marshal and Jang Son-thaek, the husband of Kim Kyong-hui, Kim Jong-il’s sister.

South Korean pundits believe that Kim Kyong-hui, also a Politboro member, and Mr. Jang have been appointed “regents” to guide Kim Jong-un through his early days in power.

Yet with his father having implemented the “Songeun” (“Military First”) policy, which granted the armed forces massive privileges over the party and other sections of society, the young Mr. Kim may be sitting on a powder keg as factions line up.

“The military is too powerful — it competes with the party and is involved with confrontation with the U.S. and South Korea — so there might be conflict with the party,” Mr. Choi said. “If that happens, it would be very dangerous.”

Regional experts expect the riskiest period to be next year: 2012 marks the 100th anniversary of Kim Il-sung’s birth and is the year Kim Jong-il promised that his country would become a “great and prosperous nation.”

“In three to six months, there is the possibility of a factional struggle, depending on how much Jang and Kim Kyong-hui want to keep Kim Jong-un as a figurehead,” said Kim Byung-ki, a security specialist at Korea University.

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak spent Monday presiding over a Security Council meeting and a Cabinet meeting while the armed forces went on emergency alert.

The news of Mr. Kim’s death spread around the country like wildfire, propelled by rolling TV coverage and viral spread on mobile phones and the Internet.

The mood was of surprise and unease: The South Korean stock market, which usually shrugs off North Korea’s nuclear tests, missile launches and military attacks, sank 3.7 percent.

Mr. Lee’s spokesman, in a televised address, urged people to remain calm and continue work. North and South Korea never signed a peace agreement after the Korean War and technically remain in a state of war.

Despite the risks of instability, at least some South Koreans had hopes for the future.

“It is natural to feel sad when someone dies, but in this case I feel fortunate to have lived to hear this news: Kim Jong-il was a very bad dictator for many years,” said Moon Kyeong-geun, a defector from North Korea who has lived in the South for eight years.

“There may be political turmoil ahead, but I hope that even if Kim Jong-un succeeds his father as a dictator, he will improve North Korea’s economic situation,” he added.

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