SHENZHEN, China — North Korean leader Kim Jong Il left the family business in terrible shape.
Under his leadership over the past 17 years, almost 10 percent of his country’s population, about 2 million people, died of hunger. North Korea developed nuclear weapons, but its people sank ever deeper into poverty and isolation.
His youngest son, Kim Jong Un, was only recently named to succeed him and is still in his 20s. He has before him what seems an impossible task for a baby-faced young man who just a decade ago was attending high school in Switzerland: Rescue a failed state, and perpetuate the family dynasty into a third generation.
“Kim Jong Il was the glue that held the system together,” said Scott Snyder, a Korea expert with the Council on Foreign Relations. “We don’t know how the system will respond in his absence.”
“Everything could potentially change,” said Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing. “The only person who had the experience and who held the exclusive power is gone.”
Kim Jong Un was extolled Monday by North Korean state media as the “great successor” to his father, who was referred to as the “Dear Leader,” and to his grandfather, North Korean founder Kim Il Sung. The young man, thought to be just shy of his 28th birthday, is the “outstanding leader of our party, army and people.”
But it’s not nearly so simple.
In what has the makings of a Shakespearean drama, the young man is likely to be overshadowed at least for a time by a powerful uncle, Jang Sung Taek. And initial indications are that North Korea may try to set up a more collective leadership.
Jang, 65, is married to Kim Jong Il’s younger sister, Kim Kyong Hui. Jang spent three decades in the ruling Workers’ Party, holding key positions in the military and secret police and running North Korea’s special economic zones. Members of his own family also hold powerful jobs with the military.
In contrast, his nephew’s résumé is thin. Kim Jong Un attended a German-language public high school in Bern, Switzerland, where he had been registered as the son of a North Korean diplomat. His classmates described him as crazy about basketball and computer games.
Until September 2010, when he was named a four-star general, he was almost entirely unknown to the North Korean public. Even the exact spelling of his name was a state secret.
“Kim Jong Un has had only two years,” said Shi. “It is not enough time to become crown prince.”
Current and former U.S. officials are divided on what to expect from the relationship between Jang and the new leader. Chuck Downs, a former Pentagon and State Department official, said the younger Kim was likely to be a figurehead with Jang actually running the show.
Downs said he has concluded from years of watching North Korea that Kim Jong Un is not nearly tough enough for the job.
“You don’t go from a guy who tries to be friends with everyone at his Swiss boarding school, who befriends enemies of North Korea and puts a poster of Kobe Bryant in his room, to being the kind of ruthless person who rules North Korea,” he said.
Current U.S. intelligence officials concur that Jang is likely to play an important role, but regard him as too cautious to try to seize power for himself. And the U.S. government assessment is that Kim Jong Un is indeed ruthless enough to rule.
Regardless, North Korea officials are likely to emphasize order while the succession unfolds. The military appears to be taking a more prominent role. The announcement Monday of Kim’s death was signed by the four different entities from the party, military and people’s assembly.
“A lot depends on whether the power centers of the regime coalesce around Kim Jong Un, or see this period of uncertainty as an opportunity to change the balance of power internally,” a U.S. official said. “Those are very tricky calculations to make in an authoritarian society like North Korea.”
The new leader is unlikely to get much help from his closest family.
His oldest brother, Kim Jong Nam, was assumed to be the heir, but fell from favor after being arrested at Tokyo’s Narita airport trying to sneak in under a fake passport to take his son to Disneyland.
Kim Jong Nam, who now lives in Macao, told Japanese television last year that he opposed the “hereditary succession into a third generation.”
Kim Jong Nam and his son appear to realize they’re better off being passed over for leadership of the country. North Korea increasingly appears to be an anachronism of a country, all the more so at the end of a year when undemocratic governments collapsed across North Africa.
When Kim Il Sung died in 1994 at the age of 82, North Korea was also in economic crisis, still reeling from the collapse of the Soviet Union three years earlier.
But Kim Jong Il was well-prepared to take over. He had spent two decades as dictator-in-training, running North Korea’s propaganda operations and later its nuclear and missile programs. By the time of his father’s death, he was already the de facto leader, one reason that he managed to pull off the transition without any visible opposition.
Still, conditions deteriorated badly in North Korea during his 17 years in power, and it became increasingly difficult to hide that from its people.
Outside the capital, people almost never eat meat and even a bowl of rice can be a rare treat. Chronic malnutrition since the early 1990s has left an entire generation stunted. One study of defectors who had escaped to China found that 18-year-old males are 5 inches shorter than their South Korean counterparts.
The country’s scientific resources have been devoted to the pursuit of nuclear weapons and missiles. In his effort to maintain control, Kim Jong Il banned the Internet, leaving experts in nearly every field far behind in adapting to new ideas.
But during the famine of the 1990s, people started opening markets, growing their own food and traveling far in search of sustenance. When they crossed the 800-mile border into China, they realized that the world had moved on without them. Increasingly, people are bringing iPods, DVDs, memory sticks and other technology across the border — and the idea of their own leadership’s culpability.
“The North Korean people had real affection for Kim Il Sung,” said Sohn Jung-hoon, a defector and activist based in Seoul, South Korea. “But Kim Jong Il was a terrible leader. The people suffered too much hardship and famine.”