North Korea`s Kim Jong-Il no lame duck, in US view

The build-up to Kim Jong-Un`s unveiling has kept Korea-watchers on edge.

Last Updated: Oct 02, 2010, 09:45 AM IST

Washington: North Korea`s Kim Jong-Il will not become a lame duck leader and is expected to keep a firm grip on power until his death, despite having unveiled his successor, current and former US officials say.

After years of speculation, Kim`s youngest son, Kim Jong-Un, was rolled out to North Koreans this week and appointed to senior political and military posts in the isolated state.

Kim Jong-Un, whose very existence had not been previously acknowledged in North Korea, was made a four-star general and named second-in-command to his father at the Workers` Party`s powerful Central Military Commission.

But for past and present US officials, the power still remains centralised in one man: Kim Jong-Il.

"The elder Kim may have picked his heir, but he`s unlikely to actually give up power until he dies," one current US official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

"Kim Jong-Il will be calling the shots on the key issues for the foreseeable future."

King Jong-Un, believed to be in his 20s, isn`t the only one whose star is rising. Kim Jong-Il`s sister and her husband also received important posts, creating a powerful triumvirate ready to take over the family dynasty that has ruled North Korea since its founding after World War Two.

Victor Cha, director of Asian Affairs at the White House from 2004 to 2007, said the ascension of Kim`s family further enhanced the ruler`s power during the remaining years of his life. Kim, 68, is believed to have suffered a stroke in 2008.

"I do think he`s still very much in charge," said Cha, who works for the Centre for Strategic and International Studies think tank in Washington.

The views by current and former US officials are consistent with those on the Korean peninsula: Kim will be in charge for years to come.

No Cuban-style transition

In Cuba, former leader Fidel Castro oversaw transition from the sidelines four years ago when he stepped aside, at first temporarily due to illness, and handed power to his brother. He formally resigned in 2008.

Although Kim could also decide to step down before his death, he is not expected to do so. Current and former US officials point to history as a gauge -- Kim only took power after his father, Kim Il-sung, died in 1994 at the age of 82.

"The son is young, inexperienced and practically unknown to most North Koreans, and it`ll take a long time for him to build up a power base," the current US official said.

During his remaining years, Kim Jong-Un`s profile may rise, but that will not undermine his father`s power.

"I think what Kim Jong-Il desperately wants is a few years of continued life, and relative tranquillity so that the legitimacy and talents of the young man can be made manifest," said Donald Gregg, who was a national security adviser to vice president George HW Bush from 1982 to 1988 and US ambassador to South Korea from 1989 to 1993.

The build-up to Kim Jong-Un`s unveiling has kept Korea-watchers on edge. US and South Korean officials blame the North for sinking a South Korean warship in March, and US officials say the attack may have been designed to rally military support around Kim Jong-Un.

Pyongyang denies any role in the warship`s sinking.

A stable road to succession in the impoverished state would be a relief to North Korea`s neighbours -- China, South Korea and Japan -- who worry regime collapse could result in massive refugee flows and possibly descent into civil war.

But for US observers, Kim`s continued prominence also lowers hopes of any major changes to policy in North Korea, whose aspirations to be a nuclear weapons power has worried the outside world for years.

"Unfortunately for North Koreans, we`re likely to see more of the same," the current US official said.

Bureau Report