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.
However, Mr. Kim exercised power via a higher body, the National Defense Commission (NDC), of which his official title was chairman.
The NDC is composed of the army chief of staff, the defense minister, a vice marshal and Mr. Chang, the husband of Kim Kyong-hui, Mr. Kim’s sister.
South Korean pundits believe that Kim Kyong-hui, a Politburo member, and Mr. Chang have been appointed “regents” to guide Kim Jong-un through his early days in power.
Yet with his father having implemented the “Songun” (“Military First”) policy, which granted the armed forces massive privileges over the party and other sections of society, Kim Jong-un may be sitting on a powder keg as factions line up.
Kim Il-sung was a proponent of “Juche,” or self-reliance, which was the founding ideology of the regime. After his father’s death, Mr. Kim shifted to “Songun” as a way to keep the army happy and maintain his own grip on power, said John Tkacik, who served as chief of China intelligence at the State Department in the Clinton administration.
Mr. Tkacik said a showdown between the army and the internal security apparatus under Mr. Jang is likely in a matter of months.
“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,” said Choi Jin-wook, senior North Korea researcher at Seoul’s Korea Institute of National Unification. “If that happens, it would be very dangerous.”
Regional analysts expect the riskiest period to be 2012, which is the year Mr. Kim 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 Chang and Kim Kyong-hui want to keep Kim Jong-un as a figurehead,” said Kim Byung-ki, a security specialist at Korea University.
North Koreans mourned the death of their “Dear Leader.” State media eulogized Mr. Kim as a “great master of politics and illustrious commander born of heaven,” and state TV showed people weeping.
Kim Jong-un is chairman of the funeral arrangements, according to North Korean media reports.
The roles given to the army, the Korean Workers’ Party and the reserve army under Kim Jong-un’s uncle, Mr. Chang, at the funeral services will provide a clue as to the transition of power, according to Western officials and analysts.
Meanwhile, 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 South Korean stock market, which usually shrugs off North Korea’s nuclear tests, missile launches and military attacks, sank 3.7 percent.
• Ashish Kumar Sen reported from Washington.