All eyes on North Korean elections for signs of Kim Jong Il's son as his successor

Share this article

WHEN North Korea elects a new legislature tomorrow, observers of the secretive nation will be watching for one name: Kim Jong Un, the 26-year-old some believe will be selected to lead after his father's death.

Speculation about a successor has been mounting since Kim Jong Il, 67, reportedly had a stroke last August. Recent moves to consolidate his circle of advisers hint that he may be setting the stage to hand power to the next generation of the world's first communist dynasty.

If Kim Jong Un joins the legislature, it would be a strong sign he is being groomed to take over. "It would be the first step for Kim Jong Un to inherit power from his father," said Song Young-sun, a South Korean MP and North Korea expert. "He needs a basis for the North Korean people to revere him before he can move on to higher posts."

As members of the 687-seat Supreme People's Assembly typically serve as key party, government and military officials, the election could also give hints of any shake-up in the power structure as the regime faces international pressure to give up its nuclear programme and stop developing ballistic missiles.

Elections in the country of 24 million people are largely a formality. Polls are held every five years, with only one candidate – hand-picked by the ruling Workers' Party – running in each constituency. The poll was scheduled for August 2008, around the time of Kim's reported stroke, but it was postponed with no reason being given.

Six months later, Kim appears to have recovered. In an open letter to the nation, he announced last month that he would stand again for election, joining soldiers, workers, farmers and intellectuals as candidates. There was no mention of his son. But South Korea's Yonhap news agency said Jong Un has been chosen as Kim's successor and will run.

Recent dispatches in North Korea's media have emphasised "bloodline" and "inheritance", possible references to what would be a second hereditary succession. Kim Jong Il was preceded by his father, Kim Il Sung, the founder of North Korea.

For some time, Kim Jong Il's late companion, Ko Yong Hi, mother to his two younger sons, has been referred to as "Respected Mother" – a phrase seen as a hint the North is paving the way for one of her sons to take power.

Little is known about Jong Un, the youngest of three sons Kim Jong Il is known to have fathered. He studied at the International School of Berne in Switzerland until 1998 under the pseudonym Pak Chol, learning English, German and French.

A classmate recalled him as timid and introverted, but an avid skier and basketball player. A Japanese man who claims to know Jong Un from his years as Kim Jong Il's sushi chef has said the son looks and acts just like his father and is the leader's favourite.

In contrast, Kim often derided the middle son, Jong Chul, as "girlish", said Kenji Fujimoto in a 2003 memoir. The eldest son, Jong Nam, 37, had been assumed the heir apparent but fell out of favour after being caught using a fake Dominican passport to get to Tokyo Disneyland in 2001.