North Korea: Who could become leader if Kim Jong-un is dead?

When Kim Jong Il died in 2011 there was no question about who would take up the reigns of the family regime. Kim Jong Un had be groomed as a dictator from an early age. Selected among his siblings as having the ambition, capability and ruthless attitude required to continue the Kim dynasty.

There’s no such obvious successor for Kim Jong Un and whether the 36-year-old is dead, incapacitated or fit and well enjoying an April sojourn at his beachside residence, the speculation surrounding his condition has raised the intriguing question of who would take over?

His own children, of whom there are thought to be three, are still too young to take over, the eldest, a girl, is thought to be around 10 years old.

The most prominent Kim family figure after Jong Un, is his sister Yo Jong. She is a trusted member of his government, the de facto head of his propaganda department and one of only a few women to be appointed to the country’s decision-making Politburo.

She had a starring role alongside Kim Jong Un during his summits with President Trump and notably represented him at the Winter Olympics in South Korea in 2018.

At times during her brothers’ foreign forays she was dismissed as a mere note carrier or even astray holder, but for a leader paranoid about leaving any trace of DNA, and a nation so controlling of its message, her role was a crucial one, and should not be underestimated.

Her bond with her Kim Jong Un was formed during their time spent at secondary school in Switzerland. They, and their older brother Kim Jong Chol are the three siblings of their fathers fourth wife Ko Yong Hui. She was a dancer with whom Kim Jong Il was said to have become infatuated and who later enjoyed great influence over the decisions taken by her flamboyant, film-loving husband.

Kim Yo Jong (pictured) could be a possible replacement for Kim Jong Un. Credit: AP

The three children had a privileged upbringing and benefited from their mothers favoured position with Kim Jong Il. It is Ko Yong Hui who is thought to put her youngest son Jong Un on the path to leadership.

It would be an altogether different prospect for her daughter Kim Yo Jong to be accepted as next in line to the tyrannical throne. On the one hand she has the pure blood of the Kim family, she is already a member of the government, she clearly has the trust of her brother, and no issue with the brutal nature of the dictatorship she would inherit.

However, in such a traditional and male-dominated country as North Korea, could a woman, and one in her early 30s, be accepted as leader? That involves running the government and the military too. Kim Yo Jong would take charge of North Korea's nuclear weapons, missiles programme and armed forces her father and brother have been at pains to amass over several decades - at the expense of the North Korean people.

orth Korean leader Kim Jong Un waves while officials, from left, Choe Ryong Hae, Kim Yong Nam, Pak Pong Ju, and Hwang Pyong So applaud during a military parade in Pyongyang. Credit: AP

The Generals who have overseen the building of that weapons programme are likely to view Kim Yo Jong as lacking the experience and wherewithal to succeed. Her gender and age would give her assumed naivety, the opposite of the image the North Korean elite want to project to the world.

So what other options does that leave?

There is the aforementioned other brother, Kim Jong Chol. He is said to have been described by this father as being “too girly’’ and lacking what it takes for leadership. He leads a low profile life in Pyongyang where he is part of a band and apparently a huge Eric Clapton fan. Not a likely candidate.

The only other possible Kim family contender is Kim Pyong Il, the brother of Jong Il. He returned to the country last year following four decades working as a diplomat in Eastern Europe. It is not known what role the 65-year-old has assumed, if any, in his nephew’s regime, but he would be seen to have the gravitas, bloodline and accepted gender to continue the family monarchy and government. The fact he has not be purged by Kim Jong Un, like his other Uncle, would indicate he is not out of the frame.

Jong Un's meeting with Donald Trump would have focused his mind on finding a possible successor, writes Debi Edward. Credit: AP

There are then two final possibilities from within the ranks of North Korean government. The first is Vice Chairman Choe Ryong-Hae, rumoured to be the father in law of Kim Yo Jong. He has worked with the Kim administration for over 50 years and is much respected within the family and the country’s elite.

Similarly Kim Jae-Ryong, the Premier of North Korea who has risen up through the ranks of government and assumed a high profile role in the military. Little is known about these two men other than their recognised positions within Kim Jong Uns inner circle.

It is impossible to predict who would take over from Kim Jong Un. The young dictator has proved himself to be a shrewd and clever operator. Against the odds, he has been in power for longer than all of his adversaries and built a nuclear arsenal deemed impossible for a country under sanctions. He may well have dismissed his health as the biggest threat he faced to his leadership, and therefore the nation, but I find it hard to believe he hasn’t made a plan for his succession.

The risk of him being assassinated during one of three summits with President Trump would have focused his mind on that. And from what we saw of him on those unprecedented and unpredictable occasions, under the world spotlight, I wouldn’t put it past him to put his faith in his sister, the woman who could be heir, Kim Yo Jong.