No clear successor to Kim seen in North Korea

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) _ North Korea’s Kim Jong Il âÄî reclusive, eccentric and mercurial âÄî has revealed little about who might succeed him as leader. Kim, 66, has had at least four children with three women, but none has emerged as the obvious candidate to take the world’s first communist hereditary dynasty into a third generation. Kim was absent from Tuesday’s celebration to mark North Korea’s 60th anniversary, fueling speculation that he was gravely ill. The eldest son, 37-year-old Jong Nam, was long considered Kim’s favorite âÄî until he tried to sneak into Japan using a fake Dominican passport in a bid to get to Tokyo’s Disney resort in 2001. His second son, 27-year-old Jong Chol, is believed to have spent part of his school years in Switzerland. He reportedly was appointed to a high position in the Korean Workers’ Party last year, making him a likely candidate. But Kenji Fujimoto, who says he was private sushi chef to Kim for 13 years, claims the “Dear Leader” believes the second son is too soft and instead favors his youngest son, Jong Un, 24, who apparently looks and acts just like his father. However, none has been pushed forward publicly as the crown prince of the impoverished Stalinist nation founded 60 years ago. Kim took over at the 1994 death of his father, Kim Il Sung, who was known as the “Great Leader,” after being groomed for the post for 20 years. “Trying to figure out North Korea politics … is like playing with a ouija board. There’s no set line of succession like we saw in 1994,” said Dr. Michael G. Kulma of the Asia Society in New York. And the lack of a clear successor in a nation that has made a cult of the two men raises the question of what will happen to the world’s most isolated country if Kim dies suddenly at a time of sensitive international nuclear negotiations. “The immediate impact is that it puts things on hold on the nuclear front … but really it depends on who takes over: A hard-line faction? A moderate faction? A military collective? One of his sons?” Kulma said. Kim Hak-sung, a political scientist at South Korea’s Chungnam National University, predicts internal unrest if Kim is incapacitated or dead. “Given that he hasn’t anointed any of his sons as his successor, North Korea could be embroiled into internal confusion over the next year,” he said. Speculation about Kim Jong Il’s health has been swirling for years. Known as a lover of cigars and cognac, Kim reportedly has suffered for years from diabetes and heart disease. He last was seen in public about a month ago. North Korean officials deny reports he is ill, and Kim himself dismissed the reports in October. “They exaggerate my slightest movement. I think they’re novelists, not journalists,” he said during a summit with South Korea in Pyongyang. In Washington, a U.S. intelligence official said Tuesday it was possible Kim had suffered a stroke. That official and another U.S. source spoke on condition of anonymity to describe sensitive intelligence gathering. In Seoul, an official at the South Korean Unification Ministry said the ministry had intelligence that Kim’s health has worsened. Spokesman Kim Ho-nyeon said officials were trying to confirm the report, and did not know the nature of the illness. At Waseda University in Tokyo, an expert on North Korea theorized that Kim has been dead for five years. Professor Toshimitsu Shigemura wrote in a book that Kim disappeared from public for 42 days in 2003. He speculates that Kim actually died then âÄî and that his many well-trained doubles have been acting as the leader, with a tight circle of advisers running the country. North Korean officials have denied the claims, and there has been no confirmation of the theory even though Shigemura says a voice analysis of a 2004 meeting shows the man in the negotiations was not Kim. Yoo Ho-yeol, a North Korea expert at Korea University, predicted that top military leaders will collectively run the North if Kim is as ill as reported. “The military would do the crisis management,” he said. Marcus Noland, senior fellow at the Washington-based Institute for International Economics, said elements of the Communist Party, Kim’s family and the military would want to form coalitions in a potential succession scenario. “It is quite possible that you end up with some sort of collective leadership centered around the National Defense Commission, or you have a member of the Kim family reigning but not ruling, essentially being used as a device to symbolize political continuity, being the front for elements calling the shots,” he said. Koh Yu-hwan, a North Korea expert at Seoul’s Dongguk University, said a military team could declare martial law. While some analysts predicted turmoil, Koh said North Korea has been preparing for a shift of power by putting young junior officials in key government posts. Kulma noted that Kim’s absence is nothing new for a man who has cultivated an air of mystery. “The initial reports about not attending celebrations are reason for speculation,” Kulma said. “But at the same time, he has from time to time gone off the radar screen for extended periods.”