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Published: Friday, 10/1/2010

Korean succession

NORTH Korea's Kim family, in power since 1945, is busily trying to perpetuate its rule into a third generation.

The founding father was Kim Il Sung, installed in Pyongyang by the Soviet army in 1945. When he died in 1994, he was succeeded by his son, Kim Jong Il, Korea's current ruler. The younger Kim apparently had a stroke two years ago and another succession may be on its way. Kim Jong Il evidently has chosen his youngest son, Kim Jong Un, in his 20s, to follow him.

A meeting of the Workers' Party of Korea has just named Kim Jong Un to the central committee of the party and made him the equivalent of a four-star army general. These two moves, while not anointing Kim Jong Il's successor, could be a significant step in the process.

Dynastic rule is uncommon in the Communist world. Cuba's Castros are the only other current example. But it is common in Asia - in India, Pakistan, the Philippines, and elsewhere.

Even so - and what we learn about North Korea's politics is seen only through a glass darkly - there appear to be a few hurdles that Kim Jong Un, after the death of his father, will have to negotiate before he assumes control. One is the rest of the Kim family. Presumably given his relative youth and inexperience, a number of family members have been put in positions of apparent tutelage over him, opening up possibilities that he will never get to the pinnacle of power.

Second, and perhaps more important, he will have to develop a working relationship with North Korea's armed forces - which number more than a million, have nuclear weapons, and occupy the top of the pecking order when it comes to dividing the country's limited resources.

The United States is in an awkward position to address this transition in North Korea and in its relations with the country. There is no U.S. Embassy in Pyongyang to watch what is happening, an omission President Obama should remedy. North Korean officials are not participating in the six-party talks designed to try to deal with their nuclear aspirations, another problem that must be addressed.

Perhaps the best thing going for the United States in hoping for reasonable behavior from North Korea is the fact that China, on whom the country depends for rice and oil, doesn't want its needy, truculent neighbor to make trouble.



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