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North Korean Succession Appears Uncertain

A recent North Korean broadcast indicates North Korean leader Kim Jong Il is laying groundwork for one of his sons to succeed him.

South Korean intelligence experts say a recent North Korean radio broadcast is a sign leader Kim Jong Il intends to eventually transfer power to one of his sons.

South Korean media say the radio commentary quotes Kim Jong Il as saying he will follow instructions given by his father, North Korea's first leader, Kim Il Sung, by helping a son take over the leadership.

North Korea is the only state in history to blend Stalinist Communism with a traditionally Confucian dynastic succession of power from one family member to another.

Kim Jong Il assumed power upon his father's death in 1994, after being groomed for decades to assume leadership.

Experts say the recent broadcast echoes announcements of the 1970's, when Pyongyang began raising Kim Jong Il's public profile. At that time, his father was in his early 60s, just as Kim Jong Il is now.

Kim Jong Il has at least three sons, none of whom has been named specifically as an heir.

Peter Beck monitors North Korean events for the International Crisis Group in Seoul. He says Kim Jong Il is playing it safe for now.

"Even though they're his children, he doesn't want to place all his bets on one horse," said Peter Beck. "It's not clear which of the children will be best placed."

Kim Jong Il is known to have had three marriages. The second of those produced a daughter, who experts say is extremely unlikely to inherit power.

Kim Jong Il's first marriage produced his eldest son, 34-year-old Kim Jong Nam. Under Confucian tradition, he was long assumed to be the heir to the Kim dynasty.

Mr. Beck says that may have changed in 2001, when Kim Jong Nam and his family were detained in Japan after trying to use false passports to visit the Tokyo Disneyland.

"And this was at a time when North Korea was still recovering from a very serious famine," he said. "So one has to wonder about what the priorities are for this younger generation."

Kim Jong Il's third marriage produced two other sons, 24-year-old Kim Yong Chol and 22-year-old Kim Jong Un. Experts say Kim Jong Un is a more likely successor.

Members of the Kim family are given an exalted status in North Korea, bordering on worship. North Korea watchers say that creates challenges in transferring power. One problem is that the dynasty's founder, Kim Il Sung, is revered as guerrilla leader who suffered hardships in the fight against Japanese colonial rule in the early 20th century, and for his role in rebuilding the country after the Korean War in the 1950s.

Hwang Jang-Yeop became the highest-ranking person ever to defect from North Korea to the South in 1994. He says none of Kim Jong Il's sons are capable of living up to the family legend.

Mr. Hwang, who is now a North Korean human rights activist, says whoever is chosen as successor will lack the stature to last long in power.

Kim Jong Il lacks his father's warrior reputation, which many analysts say makes him politically weak. And his sons also are perceived to fall short of their grandfather's image, having enjoyed wealth far beyond the reach of most North Koreans.

The North Korean broadcast about succession is emerging as speculation abounds about Kim Jong Il's own grasp on power. In recent months, reports from North Korea say his portraits have been taken down in a number of public places. Last month, a videotape allegedly filmed in North Korea showed a portrait of Mr. Kim being defaced.

Douglas Shin is a Christian activist who says he has extensive contacts in North Korea. He goes so far as to say he thinks Kim Jong Il has already been sidelined.

"I think right now North Korea is basically run by one or more generals who are using Kim Jong Il as a façade," said Douglas Shin. "They are hiding behind Kim Jong Il whenever necessary."

Mr. Shin says official North Korean announcements increasingly emphasize the role of party and the military leaders surrounding Kim Jong Il, rather than Mr. Kim personally. That, he says, may hint at a broader distribution of power in the future.

Because the Kim personality cult has been used to legitimize the regime for decades, many North Korea experts say the government is unlikely to survive long in the event of Kim Jong Il's death. The current leader's sons are considered too distant from their grandfather's heroic image to command public support and there appears to be no mechanism for selecting a leader outside the family. That could mean a power struggle that leaves the government unable to function effectively.