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Kim Jong Un to face stiff challenges as North Korea's new leader

December 28, 2011 |  4:00 am

Kim Jong Un to face stiff challenges as North Korea's new leader
REPORTING FROM SEOUL AND BEIJING -- North Korea's newly minted leader faces a steep political learning curve: His doting father, Kim Jong Il, is now officially gone, memorialized this week in a state funeral at which hundreds of thousands of mourners flailed in sadness along the snowy streets of Pyongyang.

Quietly standing at the head of the solemn procession, the youthful Kim Jong Un, boyish-looking with his close-cropped haircut and chubby cheeks, must now set upon the task of leading an impoverished and vilified regime that in recent years has failed to adequately feed its own people.

The 28-year-old Swiss-educated successor has the mature guidance of two players from his father's inner circle: his uncle, Jang Song Taek, and his wife, Kim Kyong-hui –- the late dictator's younger sister.

PHOTOS: Kim Jong Il through the years

Yet experts predict that many perhaps-competing interests will be whispering into the ear of the young ruler in the coming months as world leaders ponder whether he will follow his father's take-no-prisoners diplomacy or set his own course.

For days, the state-controlled media have bestowed one new title on the young Kim after the next, including the "great successor," "supreme leader" and "sagacious leader." The coming months will tell which of those words hold water, North Korea watchers say.

Many expect the younger Kim to maintain the old military-first policy, finding his way into the hearts and minds of military leaders old enough to be his grandfather. That means prioritizing their funding needs and playing out old agendas of nuclear arms building and off-the-leash attacks against South Korea.

"After the funeral, the first thing Kim Jong Un has to do is shore up his power with the military with a title that will legitimately give him power," said Moon Hong-sik, a research fellow at the Institute for National Security Strategy in Seoul.

FULL COVERAGE: Kim Jong Il | 1942-2011

South Korean residents alive during World War II and the 1950s Korean conflict worry that Kim's youth and inexperience might bring warfare back to the Korean peninsula.

"Looking at his youthful face, I feel a chilling fear: Will I be facing the third war in my life?" wrote one blogger.

But some scholars expect the North under Kim Jong Un to step back from its aggressive policy toward the South.

"I would expect the North is going to continue its smile offensive and good behavior at least until April 15, 2012, [the 100th birthday of North Korean founder Kim Il Sung] and possibly beyond then," Ralph A. Cossa, president of the Pacific Forum, a Honolulu-based nonprofit research institute, wrote in a recent essay.

Other experts agreed.

"North Korea's internal resources have dried up. To solve the biggest problem, which is the economic issue, they will have to reach out to the nearby countries," said Koh Yu-hwan, a North Korean studies professor at Dongguk University in Seoul.

"They are unlikely to carry out military provocation," added Koh, who said he expected North Korea to return to the six-party talks aimed at persuading the regime to drop its nuclear weapons program.

Others, including some of the 20,000 defectors who have fled their homeland for South Korea, hope that Kim Jong Un helps foster an economic recovery that will mean less deprivation and hunger for North Korea's 24 million residents.

"Right now the food shortage is severe, and in order to reduce the civilian discontent, he will have to focus on bettering the economy," Moon said.

In China, Pyongyang's longtime ally, even a commentator on the official CCTV television broadcast referred to North Koreans' desire for a change of course.

"I hope the new leader will lead the country to a new era with better living conditions,'' said Su Xiaohui, research fellow at the Chinese Institute of International Studies.

But a vice chairman from China's Central Military Commission seemed to leave the door open to possibility that the North Korean military will remain the regime's top priority. 

"We cannot be more sad. Comrade Kim Jong Il is a close friend of the Chinese people and military," he told the Xinhua news service.

Many people want Kim Jong Un to become North Korea's Deng Xiaoping and open up the economy.

"It would be so great if he would open North Korea's borders and develop its economy like China," said Pak Chun Ok, 61, a Chinese citizen of Korean ethnic roots.

Pak said that out of curiosity he had stopped by the North Korean Embassy on Wednesday. She said she was mourning Kim Jong Il but doubted that many others felt genuine grief.

"Definitely, they are all faking, except for those who are directly related to him," she said.

Although her father was North Korean and a loyal member of the Communist Party, she said she had long ago lost faith in the unbending ideology that had hobbled the North Korean economy.

"When I was a kid, North Korea was richer than China. Many intellectuals, professors left China for North Korea," she said. "After China's reform and opening, it switched."

In recent years, she said, the North Koreans she met were starving women who’d sometimes come to her home begging for food and shelter for themselves and their children.

Zhang Lianghui, a professor at the Central Party School in Beijing, predicted people will be disappointed by the younger Kim.

"People are assuming [that] because he is young and studied in Switzerland, he will focus on reform and the economy, but I think his background is less important than the position he occupies now," Zhang said.

Zhang believes that Kim Jong Un will continue the "military first" policy of his father, unwilling in a tenuous political position to challenge the powerful military whose support he needs to rule.

Although it remains unclear how much Kim Jong Il was actually beloved by North Koreans, the regime's state-run media whipped up a frenzy of propaganda for the late "Dear Leader."

"Even the snow has come to say goodbye to the general," North Korean television announcers reported on a blizzardy day in Pyongyang.

One added: "It is the last stage of your life, but not of your ideology."

And now it will be up to the son to guide the nation. And if he's asking, Pak Chun Ok has some no-nonsense advice for the Kim clan's third-generation leader.

"Kim Jong Un has to go among the people and see how they are really living," she said. "It is not right for the [North Korean] leaders to have all the food while the common people are starving."

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Kim Jong Il's death could prompt North Korean elite to flee

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-- John M. Glionna and Barbara Demick 

Photo: North Korea's new leader, Kim Jong Un, front right, salutes as the funeral procession of his late father, Kim Jong Il, returns to the Kumsusan Memorial Palace in Pyongyang. Credit: Associated Press

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