A career politician named Jang Song Taek became the second most powerful man in North Korea, injecting a dose of unpredictability into the power handoff playing out in Pyongyang between a father too sick and a son too young to manage the transition alone.
Many believe the announcement of an agreement designating Kim Jong Eun the successor to his father, Kim Jong Il, could come at a rare government meet in Pyongyang next month.
Since its establishment in 1948, North Korea has been ruled by Kims — first Kim Il Sung, now Kim Jong Il, 68. The expected ascension of a third generation, represented by Kim Jong Il’s youngest son, has created a sense of unease among US officials and other experts, who wonder if Kim Jong Eun is prepared to become the next leader.
It is Jang, the 64-year-old vice chairman of the powerful National Defense Commission, who has emerged as a third figure in any succession. There are other high-level leaders in North Korea, but no one else holds comparable clout. And no one else has been given more trust: put in a position in which he could serve as a mentor to Kim Jong Eun or attempt to seize power for himself once Kim Jong Il passes from the scene, at a time when the nation’s population increasingly doubts if the Kim way is the best way.
The current leader’s apparent urgency to set a power handoff in motion may have arisen “because he knows he doesn’t have much time left,” said Andrei Lankov, a North Korea specialist at Kookmin University.
The power transfer represents a security concern for the US, whose 28,500 troops in South Korea are faced with unsettling possibilities. A smooth transfer would install as North Korea’s leader a young, unpredictable figure who some American officials fear could prove even more hawkish toward South Korea than his father and grandfather.
Analysts describe Jang, almost unanimously, as the greatest variable in the succession process. If he follows orders from Kim Jong Il, he will probably spend the next years as a behind-the-scenes kingmaker, assisting Kim Jong Eun as the heir builds his foundation of power. If Kim Jong Il dies soon, though, it is thought possible that Jang or another high-level leader could jump in to fill the power vacuum.
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