N. Korea watchers say Kim's son in power for now

AFP , Monday 19 Dec 2011

North Korea urges its people to rally behind Kim Jong-Il young son and heir-apparent Kim Jong-Un

The death of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il has raised fears of turbulence in the nuclear-armed nation but observers said a dynastic succession is underway and that strife is unlikely for the time being.

Analysts said Monday's announcements on North Korean state media, which revealed Kim had died two days previously at age 69, made it clear his youngest son and heir apparent Kim Jong-Un is firmly in power -- at least for now.

But some North Korea-watchers cautioned of risks ahead if the young and inexperienced Jong-Un feels the need to prove his military mettle by deploying the kind of aggressive tactics that helped keep his father in power.

State media in Pyongyang have urged people to rally round the leadership of Jong-Un, who is aged in his late 20s, with the state news agency dubbing him the "great successor".

"The Kim Jong-Un era has already started," said Paik Hak-Soon of Seoul's Sejong Institute think-tank.

"This clearly indicates that Jong-Un is already firmly in power, and all key officials under Kim Jong-Il have decided for the past two days since Kim's death to support Jong-Un as the new leader," he added.

"The North's top guys have already sorted out everything, and the regime seems to be stable under the new leadership. I don't expect any major turbulence or power struggle within the regime in the foreseeable future.

Little is known about the young man now expected to extend the Kim dynasty into a third generation, other than that he attended a Swiss school and reportedly likes skiing and Hollywood tough guy Jean-Claude Van Damme.

Kim Jong-Un had little public profile until his father suffered a stroke in 2008, forcing succession plans to be accelerated.

In September 2010 the son was handed senior ruling party posts and made a four-star general, despite his lack of any military experience. Since then, he has been constantly at his father's side.

Kim Jong-Il's powerful brother-in-law Jang Song-Thaek may act as the son's mentor as he finds his feet, say analysts who note that North Korea's elites have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo.

"For a while the military and Kim's family will try to uphold Kim Jong-Un as their leader and unite around him," said Baek Seung-Joo of the Korea Institute for Defence Analyses, adding that the North had fully prepared for Kim's death.

But the new leader, who comes into the job with a host of challenges including severe food shortages in a nation which has seen deadly famine in the past, is not expected to take on an ambitious agenda.

"Kim Jong-Un is not expected to seek any drastic policy change while trying to cement his leadership. He will try to share power or set up a strategic alliance with top military leaders," Baek said.

"A power struggle is possible in the future, creating an obstacle to his succession because Jong-Un did not secure full public support," he said, adding that the lack of popular backing made him vulnerable.

Relations with South Korea have been icy since two deadly border incidents blamed on the North last year.

Michael Green, of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, said there was a risk of similar confrontations ahead.

"The danger now is that Kim Jong-Un feels under pressure to demonstrate his legitimacy with nuclear tests or military provocations," Green said.

But Green said he expected calm for the time being at least, as North Korea focuses on mourning.

Bruce Klingner of the US Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think-tank, said Kim's death raises real concerns about stability.

"North Korean provocative behaviour or military action is unlikely in the near-term," Klingner said.

"However, Seoul and Washington will be wary that Kim Jong-Un... may feel it necessary in the future to precipitate a crisis to prove his mettle to other senior leaders or to generate a 'rally around the flag' effect."

Paik agreed the new leadership was unlikely to take a confrontational approach towards the United States and South Korea for some time.

"It needs lots of aid and daily necessities to provide to its people to mark the major political anniversary in 2012," he said, referring to the 100th anniversary of the birth of founding president Kim Il-Sung.

News of the death came amid intensified diplomatic efforts to revive dormant six-nation negotiations on the North's nuclear programme.

"Regarding nuclear talks, the North will also likely take a more cooperative stance to get what they want," Paik said.

"They will probably come forward to renew negotiations with the US once the mourning period is over."

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