The young Kim's grip on power, however, may be shakier than the committee wants its people to believe, experts say. Despite Kim Jong Il's clear anointing of his 20-something son three years ago, North Korea may become embroiled in a violent power struggle, Cato Institute senior fellow Doug Bandow said. The son "has had little time to establish himself," he said. "There are several potential claimants to supreme authority in the North, and the military may play kingmaker." Christopher Hill, former U.S. ambassador to South Korea, said Kim Jong Il did not do enough to secure his son's position. Kim Jon Il's father, Kim Il Sung, spent two decades grooming him for leadership and preparing the country for the shift in power, said Hill, who was chief negotiator for the United States in talks on North Korea's nuclear program. "Kim Jong Il has done that for about a year-and-a-half" with his son, Hill said. "The North Korean public hardly knows the guy."
The younger Kim spent some of his youth at the International School of Berne and completed his education at Kim Il Sung Military University. A former personal chef to Kim Jong Il who wrote a book about the family under a pseudonym calls Kim Jong Un "a chip off the old block" who resembles his father physically and in demeanor. As Kim Jong Il became increasingly unwell, he took steps to position his youngest son, born to his third wife in either January 1983 or 1984, to seize power. By late 2009, North Korean contacts told U.S. diplomats in Seoul that Kim Jong Il had sent money to beautify and modernize the port city of Wonsan, Kim Jong Un's possible birthplace. Wonsan "needs to become a great village before he takes power," a U.S. diplomat wrote in a confidential cable published by the group WikiLeaks.
His father promoted him to the Workers' Party Central Committee, North Korea's governing Cabinet, at a party convention in September 2010. Soon after, his father elevated him to the rank of general in the army, according to Global Security. Kim Jong Un began accompanying his father on ribbon-cuttings and official visits. Thursday, the pair visited a music center and opened a new department store, the country's official news agency reported. "Under the leadership of Kim Jong Un, we should turn our sorrow into strength and courage and overcome the present difficulties and work harder for fresh, great victory of the Juche revolution," an announcement from the news agency said. "All the party members, servicepersons and people should remain loyal to the guidance of respected Kim Jong Un and firmly protect and further cement the single-minded unity of the party, the army and the people." Military leaders will surround the son, including the high-profile adviser Chang Song Taek, Kim Jong Il's brother-in-law and the vice chairman of the powerful National Defense Commission, Hill said. It is unclear how the military will behave as power shifts, he said. "Chang Song Taek is a very savvy operator, and there will be some efforts from him to help ease Kim Jong Un's hands on the reins," Hill said.
Hill never met Kim Jong Un but said Chinese officials who have met the son were unimpressed with his preparation for leadership. "That said, he's at least been overseas. He's flown in an airplane or two, and may have a greater worldview than his father or grandfather," Hill said. "But I don't think there's a whole lot of evidence to support an optimistic view on the guy." Until Kim Jong Un's position is secure, the nuclear talks are unlikely to resume, Hill said. If Kim Jong Un can hold power, experts expect little change in the country's policies. "It appears unlikely that he will be a transformative figure for the country," said Sarah McDowell, a senior analyst and Asia-Pacific desk head for IHS, a global information company. Kim Jong Il's death "has plunged the isolated state of North Korea into a period of major uncertainty," McDowell said. "There are real concerns that heir apparent Kim Jon Un has not had sufficient time to form the necessary alliances in the country to consolidate his future as leader."
With news Monday of Kim's death, the impoverished country known to be pursuing nuclear weapons plunged further into uncertainty, raising risks for the region. Neighbors worry that political maneuvering in Pyongyang could spill over into missile launches or other aggression, though analysts give such acts a low probability. Tens of thousands of American troops are stationed in South Korea and Japan in this heavily armed, jittery corner of the world. China wants to keep its socialist neighbor stable - and avoid a flood of refugees - but also free from American and South Korean influence.
"If you asked experts what could happen to bring the regime down, it would be the sudden death of Kim Jong Il. That has happened now," said Victor Cha, a former U.S. National Security Council director for Asian affairs under President George W. Bush and now a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, an American think tank. "We're potentially at a watershed moment for the region." Its politics opaque in normal times, Pyongyang is likely to slow decision-making, upending efforts to restart nuclear disarmament talks just as the U.S. and North Korea seemed on the verge of resuming them. After months of delicate discussions, Washington was poised to announce a donation of food aid this week followed by an agreement with Pyongyang to suspend a uranium enrichment program, people close to the negotiations told The Associated Press.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Monday the United States is still looking for better relations with the North Korean people despite the "evolving situation" there. "We both share a common interest in a peaceful and stable transition in North Korea as well as ensuring regional peace and stability," she said in Washington. Tentative reforms to build up its listless economy and better the lives of North Koreans - 3 million of whom or more than 10 percent of the population are underfed, the U.N. says - may also be put on hold.
Kim's death caught North Korea's power brokers at a fragile time, in the midst of grooming his youngest son, Kim Jong Un, who is in his late 20s, to succeed him. Though the elder Kim had a stroke in 2008, hastening plans to find a successor, his health had seemingly improved, allowing him to travel more frequently, resume a more public role and prepare for a longer power transition like the two-decade-long one he enjoyed under his father.