Ever since Kim Jong Il was anointed Kim Il Sung’s successor – and especially after he inherited power when his father died in 1994 – there was some speculation that this was not the end, and that his son would eventually succeed him. Beginning as a joke in the 1970s and 80s, in the 1990s it became more of a hypothesis, and in the 2000s, specialists and North Koreans themselves talked about it with near certainty.
The problem was which son would be the one to inherit the throne, as the Ever-Victorious Iron-Willed Brilliant Commander had three – Kim Jong Nam, Kim Jong Chol, and Kim Jong Un. Those who closely monitored the family knew that the first son was nearly certainly out of the question: his aunt Song Hye Rang’s memoirs “Wisteria House” (등나무집), published in 2000, revealed that he was something of an outcast in his family.
The first to name him as the likely man to succeed his father was Kim Jong Il’s former Japanese cook, known under his pen name Fujimoto Kenji (藤本健二). Fujimoto is a strange man, to say the least. He fled the DPRK in 2001, and since then has produced a lot of memoirs about his time with the Kim Family. By his own confession, he earns his living by doing interviews and it seems that his memoirs have some truth mixed with misinterpretation and imagination in them.
Yet, it was him who stated in 2003 that the most likely candidate for the throne was Kim Jong Un – six years before the succession campaign actually began.
Now, in retrospect, this choice makes sense. Kim Jong Nam, as mentioned before, was not very close to his father and never met Kim Il Sung. Kim Jong Chol – the next in line – was not interested in politics and walked away from power (a wise decision). Thus the third son was the only one left out of three.
The problem was which son would be the one to inherit the throne
A year before Fujimoto made his prediction, the DPRK authorities began their first succession-related campaign – hailing Ko Yong Hui, one of Kim Jong Il’s wives. It did not last for long and was seemingly aborted even before Ko Yong Hui died in 2004. The promotion of the “Respected Mother” also nailed down the choice of a successor to Kim Jong Chol and Kim Jong Un. Should it, against all odds, be Kim Jong Nam, his mother Song Hye Rim would have been promoted instead.
WHAT’S IN A NAME?
One of the parts of the succession story which is almost never covered in English (and, by extension, in other languages which use Latin script) was that for years, the name of the successor was spelled differently in South Korean media: 김정운 and not 김정은. Both spellings are normally romanized as “Kim Jong Un” or “Kim Jong-un” and this the change was not noticed by English media. To explain the difference, I would have to vacillate from normal NK News style guide and use McCune-Reischauer romanization.
The “original” spelling thus would be Kim Jŏng-un and the new and correct one – Kim Jŏng-ŭn. The difference is, as one can see, in the last syllable, which, as we now know should be pronounced as [ɯn] and not [un].
It seems that the source of the error was the above-mentioned cook, Mr. Fujimoto. Like English, his native Japanese do not distinguish between the two variations – both would be spelled in katakana as “キム・ジョンウン” (Kimu Jyonun in Hepburn). Fujimoto decided that the correct one is Kim Jŏng-un, and for years, the South Korean press followed him.
The revelation came when on September 18, 2009, a Taiwanese tourist Huang Hanming took a photo of a poster hailing Kim Jŏng-ŭn (and not Kim Jŏng-un) inside the DPRK. Once the photo was noticed, the press immediately adjusted to the new spelling.
It is very likely that the day it all started was January 8, 2009
THE CAMPAIGN BEGINS
It seems now that the key event which kickstarted the Kim Jong Un succession campaign was the stroke Kim Jong Il suffered in 2008, when the Great Commander realized that he was indeed mortal and might die sooner than he anticipated. Like his father, he did not want his line to be abandoned by his successor, and like his father, he chose to proceed with dynastic rule to ensure it, although, according to Kim Jong Nam’s testimony, he was not a big fan of this idea at first (which may explain the ups and downs of the campaign hailing Ko Yong Hui in 2002).
It is very likely that the day it all started was January 8, 2009. Reportedly, on that day, Kim Jong Il called Ri Jae Gang (who died in a car crash in June 2010), the first vice-chairman of the Organisation and Guidance Department of the Party, and informed him that Kim Jong Un would be his successor. The information was leaked to South Korea very soon and there is very good reason to believe it is true – January 8 is Kim Jong Un’s birthday and the information appeared before this fact was known to the international public.
The press was puzzled – the choice of the youngest son appeared to be counterintuitive and, unlike the other two, no photos of Kim Jong Un were available at the time. However, by that time, the press already knew that he had studied in Switzerland and attended Kim Il Sung Military University soon after.
Soon, there were reports about the first song about Kim Jong Un being composed. It was called “Footsteps” and it was very odd, to say the least:
Footsteps of our general Kim
Sprinkles the vital force of February,
With one his forceful footstep
All the country, rivers and mountains
Greet him – tap-tap-tap.
Footsteps of our general Kim
Flows the spirit of February,
The first slogan in honor of the young Kim was “happiness from the existence of the General” and his first title – Young General (청년대장).
Fujimoto identified the song as the one sung to Kim Jong Un when he was a child and the Young General as his childhood nickname. The abovementioned photo of the poster by Huang Hanming, taken near Wonsan, shows both the song and the title.
Notably, despite the beginning of the campaign, Kim Jong Un did not become a member of the Supreme People’s Assembly in March 2009. It was not yet time for him to be presented urbi at orbi: he had to wait for five more years to enjoy the average approval rate of 100.0% at the 2014 elections.
THE FAKE KIM JONG UN?
The absence of photos of Kim Jong Un encouraged the world media to find them. Eventually, the Japanese newspaper Mainichi Shimbun came with a sensation: the young handsome man who was standing next to Kim Jong Il during his visit to Kim Chaek Steelworks Factory was his son and future successor. The man did look a lot like Kim Jong Il (and I should note that the resemblance was actually closer than that of the real son).
The message was taken seriously. South Korean intelligence opened their archives looking for the man in the photo. Eventually, they found him in an older report of KCTV: on December 30, 2008, this man, chief engineer of the factory Kim Kwang Nam gave an interview to the North Korean state television, and was most definitely not Kim Jong Un.
For those interested in Kim Kwang Nam’s fate, he actually made it up to the news once again in 2012. The factory where he worked reportedly suffered a purge – the Party secretary and the director were sent to concentration camps. Kim himself was also detained, but in a month was released – and later even promoted to the director of the factory. In 2015, he visited Russia, and in 2017 was still a director and thus was very much alive and successful.
THE THIRD CONFERENCE
The first time Kim Jong Un was shown to the public and mentioned in the Rodong Sinmun was on the Third Party Conference. This was an unexpected event. Officially, in a Communist world, a Party conference was a sort of emergency meeting of Party delegates between the Congresses, which were supposed to be held regularly. However, it was not the case, as the Congresses were not held every few years as they were supposed to – and thus the difference between a Congress and a Conference was largely symbolic.
This was the case in many Communist nations – in the USSR, there was not a single conference between 1941 and 1988 and in the DPRK of 2010, Party Conferences had not been held since 1966.
The Third Conference was initially announced in June 2010 to be held in the first ten days of September. Yet, nothing happened in these days, leading to a lot of speculation – was the successor appointed? Is Kim Jong Il fully in control? Is he sane – maybe he ordered the conference be convened and then canceled it because his post-stroke brain is not in perfect shape? Is he alive?
For some unknown, but likely important reason, it was postponed and began only on September 28. Immediately preceding it, Kim Jong Il published an order conferring military ranks to generals. This was an irregular event, as such orders usually came before his or Kim Il Sung’s birthday, and the reason was clear: Kim Jong Un and Kim Jong Il’s sister Kim Kyong Hui were given military ranks of four-star general of the ground force.
At the Conference itself, Kim Jong Un was appointed to two positions – he became a full member of the Central Committee and one of two Vice-Chairmen of the Central Military Commission. This brought the young man into the elite, but he was not the second man in the country – he was outranked by a dozen Vice-Marshals and Marshal Ri Ul Sol, and junior to all members of the Politburo. It is likely that if Kim Jong Il lived longer, Kim Jong Un would have got all these positions – perhaps at the Seventh Congress – but he did not.
The photo of the delegates of the Third Conference featured Kim Jong Un sitting in the front row, but not immediately next to his father – the newly-promoted Vice-Marshal Ri Yong Ho was between them. This mirrored the photo after the Sixth Congress of 1980, where then-General O Jin U was sitting between Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il.
The South Korean media obtained the photo in maximum resolution, and for a few days, this part of it, featuring Kim Jong Un, was the only photo of him available. As one can see, at that time, Kim Jong Un already wore a watch on his hand – which he has done quite often since then.
Soon after the conference, Kim Jong Un’s title “Young General” was taken out of circulation – despite actually becoming a general, he was now to be called “Respected Kim Jong Un, Vice-Chairman of the Central Military Commission” (존경하는 김정은 군사위부위원장) or “Respected Comrade Kim Jong Un” (존경하는 김정은 동지).
After the conference, Kim Jong Un began to accompany his father on visits, providing the world with more photos. Yet, in the Rodong Sinmun, he was not even mentioned as the second-in-command – all members of Politburo Presidium preceded him in lists of officials, his name was not in bold, no affixes of respect were used towards him. Like during the brief period between October 1980 and May 1981, the newspaper was creating the impression that Kim the son was merely another member of the elite, not the anointed successor.
This likely would have changed eventually, but in December 2011, Kim Jong Il suddenly died.
KIM JONG IL’S WILL
When Kim Jong Un became the KPA Supreme Commander at the very end of 2011, the decision to appoint him as such referenced Kim Jong Il’s will of October 8, 2011. At that time, no speech made by him on that day existed in the public domain.
However, in 2016, it was published in the final volume of the updated Collected Works of Kim Jong Il. Entitled “The great deed of the Juche revolution which started from Paektu mountain need to be continued and completed through generations” (백두에서 개척된 주체혁명위업을 대를 이어 끝까지 계승완성하여야 한다), the speech is said to have been given on October 8 and on December 15.
Given how the DPRK often retroactively changes dates of important historical events for ideological and aesthetic reasons, it would not be surprising if the dating of this particular speech was also meddled with. A possible explanation may be that, ideally, Kim Jong Il should have given this speech immediately before his death, but since the actual date – October 8 – was already revealed, both were included in print.
In the speech, Kim Jong Il talked about his predecessors – Kim Il Sung and his grandfather Kim Hyong Jik. Proudly announcing that North Korea did not collapse despite all the enemy’s scheming, the Great Commander moved to the most important part, his successor.
According to Kim Jong Il, his son enjoyed the universal support of the society, and Kim Jong Il several times received reports about his strategic genius. Furthermore, Kim Jong Un allegedly suffered with the people during the famine of the 1990s (in reality, he went to Switzerland during this period) and will never forget this period.
Next, Kim Jong Un is also very loyal to Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, continued Kim Jong Il – in his usual modest way of speaking. Thus, he was qualified to lead the nation.
Interestingly, Kim Jong Il also stated that in April 2009, Kim Jong Un was put in charge of overseeing that the Kwangmyongsong-2 satellite would not be shot down by foreign powers, but did not mention that the satellite fell down into the ocean without any foreign assistance.
Kim Jong Un, according to his father, was taking good care of the old revolutionary comrades of Kim Il Sung, from what we know this part appears to be true.
Importantly, the speech also mentioned Kim Jong Un’s mother – as usual, Ko Yong Hui remained nameless – who was praised for his upbringing.
It is this part which suggests the published speech was the one which Kim Jong Il actually made. In 2010, there was another surge of Ko Yong Hui’s personality cult, with the DPRK authorities producing a film about her. However, the cult was shut down after Kim Jong Il died. A cautious mention of Ko Yong Hui looks very believable and in line with the ideological zeitgeist of autumn 2011.
Yet, as of 2011, this speech was not published in open sources. Thus, when Kim Jong Il died, Kim Jong Un’s cult had to be built, to borrow a North Korea expression, “with the spirit of speed battle.” Judging by the fact that he is firmly in power, this did not hurt the system’s stability, at least in the short-to-medium term.
Ever since Kim Jong Un was anointed Kim Jong Il’s successor – and especially since he inherited the power after his father died in 2011 – there has been some speculation that this is not the end, and that his son (or maybe even daughter) will eventually succeed him. As of now, this remains a joke – but, in the 1980s, so was the idea of Kim Jong Il transferring power to his son.
When it comes to North Korea, nothing can be predicted. On one hand, we might wake up tomorrow and learn of a coup ousting Kim Jong Un. On the other hand, it would be quite scary but not completely impossible to imagine, say, the Thirteenth Congress of the WPK in 2071 anointing the Brilliant Strategist, Beloved and Respected comrade Kim Ju Ae to be a revolutionary successor to the Generalissimo Kim Jong Un.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
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