REPORTING FROM SHENZHEN, CHINA -- The death of Kim Jong Il leaves his family's business -- running North Korea -- in terrible shape.
Under his leadership, North Korea lost 2 million people, about 10% of the population, to starvation. It sank ever deeper into poverty and isolation, all the more striking next to the economic miracle that is China.
His youngest son and chosen successor, Kim Jong Un, still in his 20s, has before him what appears to be the nearly impossible task of trying to rescue a failed state and perpetuate the family dynasty into its third generation.
North Korea is an anachronism of a country, more so than ever at the end of a year when the world has witnessed the collapse of undemocratic regimes in Libya, Egypt and Tunisia.
"Kim Jong Il was the glue that held the system together. We don’t know how the system will respond in his absence," said Scott Snyder, Korea expert with the Council on Foreign Relations.
"Everything could potentially change," said Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing. "The only person who had the experience and who held the exclusive power is gone."
North Korean media extolled Kim Jong Un on Monday as the “great successor” and the “outstanding leader of our party, army and people.”
But it’s not so simple. The young man is likely to be overshadowed by a powerful uncle, Jang Sung Taek.
In contrast, the chosen successor has a thin resume. He attended a German-language public high school in Bern, Switzerland, where he was registered as the son of a North Korean diplomat. His classmates described him as crazy about basketball and computer games.
Until September 2010, when the overweight young man with a dimpled face was named a four-star general, he was almost entirely unknown to the North Korean public. Even the exact spelling of his name was a state secret.
"Kim Jong Un has had only two years. It is not enough time to become crown prince," said Shi.
Mindful of the future leader’s inexperience, the North Korean regime appears to be trying to set up a more collective leadership, with the military taking a more prominent role. The announcement Monday of Kim’s death was signed by the four separate entities from the party, military and people’s assembly.
The younger Kim doesn't seem likely to be able to count on his siblings for much support.
His oldest brother, Kim Jong Nam, was assumed to be the heir, but fell from favor after being arrested at Tokyo’s Narita airport, trying to sneak in under a fake passport to take his son to Disneyland. Kim Jong Nam, who now lives in Macao, told Japanese television last year that he opposed the “hereditary succession into a third generation.”
Kim Jong Nam’s own son, Kim Han Sol, 16, has posted photos of himself wearing a cross on Facebook and comments on YouTube expressing concern about the hunger in North Korea.
-- Barbara Demick
Photo: Kim Jong Il's son, Kim Jong Un, in October 2010. Credit: Vincent Yu / Associated Press