Kim Jong-un: Successor battling a weight problem – he's too thin


Kim Jong-un, the man now at the helm of one of the world's most
volatile nuclear powers, is an obese 20-something with no
leadership experience.

The question to be answered in the coming days is whether the appointment of the "Great Successor", who only emerged last year as the heir to the "Dear Leader", will lead to the kind of instability in North Korea that could infect the whole peninsula and threaten peace in the region. North Korea, impoverished and isolated internationally, is eager to maintain a smooth transition. Pyongyang insists that the people of North Korea and the powerful People's Army have "pledged to uphold the leadership of comrade Kim Jong-un", describing him as the true inheritor of the country's revolutionary philosophy.

Kim Jong-un was born, probably in 1983 or 1984, to Kim Jong-il's late wife, a Japanese-born professional dancer, Ko Yong-hui, who died several years ago. He was educated in Switzerland, and many have already expressed the hope that his exposure to Western culture will mean a greater willingness to interact with the outside world.

Beyond that, little is known about Kim Jong-il's third son, although photo- graphs seem to show that he has put on a lot of weight. He looks remarkably like his grandfather Kim Il-sung, a fact that several observers have speculated could be the result of plastic surgery. Some analysts believe that his time spent abroad could be a positive factor in helping North Korea open up.

The succession issue in the world's only Communist dynasty was settled last September when Kim Jong-un was elected vice-chairman of the party's Central Military Commission at a party conference. He has also been appointed a four-star general, as part of a speedy integration into the country's leadership. It became clear to the world that he was being groomed for succession when he accompanied his father to meet senior officials in China, including President Hu Jintao. China is North Korea's biggest backer and sole ally of note.

Analysts speculate that Kim Jong-un will continue to enforce his father's policies, with a focus on tough militarism, combined with a need to keep a firm grip on the army and push ahead with the nuclear-weapons programme.

The muted reaction around the world to his immediate elevation yesterday, including the gloomy assessment of the likelihood of improved relations, confirms that the West is unenthusiastic.

"Kim Jong-il has been working to put in place a group of people who should facilitate the succession process for his son. Last year's string of promotions at the party conference signalled a more collective approach towards leadership in North Korea, as Kim Jong-il worked to establish multiple power centres to provide support and guidance to the heir apparent should he suddenly pass away," Sarah McDowall, a senior analyst at Asia Pacific at IHS in London, said. "There is now a heightened risk of an upturn in factional tensions within the North Korean political élite as senior political figures, doubting the capabilities of Jong-un, could initiate a power struggle."

The army's role in making decisions in North Korea should never be underestimated. The People's Army is the world's fifth-largest military with 1.1 million under arms; it has pushed through a series of tests that have transformed the underdeveloped country into a nuclear power – in apparent ambivalence to the suffering of North Korea's ordinary people.

That Kim Jong-un is only in his 20s could work against him, especially in a society that values experience so highly. At the same time, he appears to have qualities that found favour with his father. He was chosen above his two brothers. Kim Jong-il's eldest son, Kim Jong-nam, 38, fell out of favour with his father after he was caught trying to enter Japan on a fake passport in 2001, saying he wanted to visit Disney's Tokyo resort. Kim Jong-un also has another brother, Kim Jong-chul, and a sister.

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