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North Korea Clears Way for a Third-Generation Kim

A worker in Paju, South Korea, looks at a picture of North Korea's Kim Jong Un on a TV news show. Experts say Kim Jong Il could be preparing his third and youngest son for leadership.
A worker in Paju, South Korea, looks at a picture of North Korea's Kim Jong Un on a TV news show. Experts say Kim Jong Il could be preparing his third and youngest son for leadership.

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This is IN THE NEWS in VOA Special English.

Little is known inside or outside North Korea about the young man who could become the next leader. Kim Jong Un studied in Switzerland but even his age is a mystery. He is around twenty-seven, the youngest of the three known sons of Kim Jong Il. The North Korean leader is sixty-eight and believed to be in poor health.

This week, North Korea published the first official photo of Kim Jong Un after a meeting of the ruling Workers' Party. Some observers had expected him to be named as the country's next leader.

But Korea expert Gordon Flake at the Mansfield Foundation in Washington says the process is not that simple.

GORDON FLAKE: "What we're seeing here is not the succession. What we're seeing here is the first public indications of the beginning of the process of potential succession. But Kim Jong Il is still in power. And so this really is not an institutional rule. This is a personal family rule."

Kim Jong Il came to power after his father, North Korea's founder Kim Il Sung, died in nineteen ninety-four.

This week, Kim Jong Un and his aunt, the sister of Kim Jong Il, became four-star generals with little military experience. State media later announced the appointment of Kim Jong Un to the Workers' Party Central Committee.

He was also named to the powerful Central Military Commission. There, he joins Jang Song Taek, who is considered second in power after Kim Jong Il. Jang Song Taek is married to Kim Kyong Hui, the leader's sister.

North Korea specialist Andrei Lankov says Kim Jong Il seems to want the couple to help prepare his young son for leadership. Then, in case of Kim Jong Il's sudden death, he says, they will become "sort of prince-regent and princess-regent."

ANDREI LANKOV: "That is, people who will be running the country and will be making actual decisions."

Yet some North Korea experts say Jang Song Taek was not always so trusted. In two thousand four, he disappeared from public for a year-and-a-half.

Much of what experts know or think they know about North Korea comes from North Koreans who fled the country.

Some experts think this week's political appointments could create tensions with North Korea's aging generals. One theory is that the military could object if the ruling party looks for friendship with South Korea to help save North Korea’s economy.

Another theory is that Kim Jong Un might try to build power by dismissing opponents and inciting South Korea.

But on Thursday military officials from the two Koreas held their first talks in two years. And on Friday the two countries agreed to hold more reunions of families separated since the Korean War. The last reunions took place a year ago.

The talks are the latest signs of improved relations since a South Korean navy ship sank in March. Forty-six sailors died. An international investigation blamed North Korea but it denied any involvement.

In Washington, a Defense Department spokesman, Colonel David Lapan, said leaders in Pyongyang could change, but American objectives remain the same. Those objectives are for North Korea to stop developing nuclear weapons and to look for peace and stability on the Korean peninsula.

And that's IN THE NEWS in VOA Special English. I'm Doug Johnson.


Includes reporting by Steve Herman, Jason Strother and Kate Woodsome