By Tim Lister
For almost a decade, scholars, diplomats and politicians have peered inside the Hermit Kingdom to play the "succession game." Dozens of U.S. diplomatic cables reveal a heated debate about the Kim dynasty, the rival claims of Kim Jong Il's sons, and whether any of them could consolidate power after their father's death.
Back in 2006, one Chinese expert observed that Kim Jong Il's oldest son, Kim Jong-nam, was "too much of a playboy" to be seriously considered, son #2 Kim Jong-chol was "more interested in video games" than governing, and Kim Jong-un (then just 23) was simply too young.
Anxious about his own authority, Kim Jong Il took only tentative steps to organize a succession. Kim Jong-un gradually emerged as the favored son, but the cables show many analysts expect a collective leadership heavily reliant on the military to emerge after Kim Jong Il's death - with Kim Jong-un only a figurehead.
A CNN analysis of more than 50 U.S. diplomatic cables published by WikiLeaks shows a highly secretive and unpredictable succession process playing out. A Chinese scholar with high-level contacts in Beijing and Pyongyang acknowledged in 2009 that "no-one except Kim (Jong-il) himself knows who would succeed him."
The cables suggest that Kim Jong-un was always closer to his father than were his older brothers. One from 2009 cites the memoirs of Kim Jong Il's former Japanese chef, Kenji Fujimoto, who said Kim Jong Il "adored Kim Jong-un for resembling himself, both in image and in personality." Another analyst described Kim Jong-un as "a bold and big-hearted person."
By contrast the North Korean leader thought Kim Jong-chol, was "too effeminate" to be a strong leader, noted one analyst, who also speculated that Kim Jong-chol "might have problems with the levels of estrogen in his system, as recent reports indicated that he exhibited female secondary sex characteristics."
Little is known about Kim Jong-un's upbringing. One Chinese scholar said he had studied in Switzerland and returned to North Korea to attend either Kim Il Sung University or Kim Chaek University of Technology. These two highly regarded schools in North Korea are where "royal family" members typically study to attain "a traditional North Korean education," the analyst said.
Kim Jong-un emerged as the front-runner to succeed his father in 2009 when he began working as acting chairman of the National Defense Commission "to support his ailing father Kim Jong-il," according to a cable from June that year. South Korean observers noted at the time that "'Young master' is a nickname that the Great General has begun using for his third son."
Pyongyang notified foreign missions of the unofficial nomination of Kim Jong-un as the heir apparent, and urged its people to call him "Captain Kim" and sing songs praising him.
But being "Captain Kim" is no guarantee of respect. Kim Jong Il had nearly twenty years to build a power base in the shadow of his father (and North Korea's founder) Kim Il Sung. By contrast, Kim Jong-un has had barely two years to garner any authority. "The issue North Korea now faces is how to create a smooth power transition for such an inexperienced individual," said one Korea-watcher last year.
Liu Ming, from the Institute of Asia and Pacific Studies at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, was quoted in one cable as saying that it would take "many years for any of KJI's sons to build a political base."
And a former national security Adviser in South Korea predicted the ruling elite would adopt the "Japan model" - with an imperial family acting as head of state, while real political power lay elsewhere, perhaps among a group of high-level military officers.
Along similiar lines, Professor Han Park of the University of Georgia - a frequent visitor to Pyongyang – is quoted in a 2009 cable as saying Kim Jong-un's position "would be largely symbolic and he would be controlled by others in Pyongyang; the DPRK would move towards a more collective leadership."
Among figures identified as influential in the transition:
*Kim Jong Il's brother-in-law Chang Song-taek, who would probably act as a "regent" to Kim Jong-il's third son Kim Jong-un;
*Key members of the National Defense Committee, including Joo koo-chan, Oh Kuk-ryul and Kim Young-choon;
*Kim Ok, Kim Jong Il's widow, described as "extremely powerful."
According to a cable from February 2010, five South Korean experts agreed that Chang Song-taek would "prove a strong rival for the younger Kim and would probably be tempted to challenge him."
But Cui Zhiying, director of the Office for Korean Peninsula Studies at Tongji University in China, predicted the transition would be "stable" and "without chaos."
Few analysts expected bold reform. Yoo Ho-yeol of Korea University told U.S. diplomats in 2009 that "no change could be expected under Kim Jong-un, despite his overseas experience and western education." Yoo predicted Kim Jong-un would continue the "backward ways of his father's time." In North Korea, regime stability trumped everything, including a more prosperous people.
That's partly because the shadow of Kim Jong-un's grandfather still looms large over North Korea's elite. The true leader in North Korea, said Professor Park, remained Kim Il Sung, because the country was still following his policies, thoughts and writings.
Ominously, the Chinese scholar Liu Ming suggested two years ago that whoever succeeded Kim Jong Il would have to "prove his ability to boost the country's prestige in order to control the military and its generals."
"One way to achieve this is for KJU to preside over more nuclear and missile tests," he said.