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Untested New North Korean Leader Seen Extending ‘Kim Brand’

Kim Jong Un
Kim Jong Un, second from left, the third son of Kim Jong Il and heir-apparent, claps after inspecting the construction site of the Huichon Power Station in Chagang Province, North Korea, on Nov. 4, 2010. Source: AP Photo/Korean Central News Agency via Korea News Service

North Korea’s new leader looks like his grandfather, went to school in Switzerland and reportedly loves basketball star Michael Jordan. Nothing is known about his views on nuclear weapons, international relations, or fixing his country’s crippled economy.

Kim Jong Un was designated the country’s successor on Dec. 19 after the totalitarian state announced the death of his father, Kim Jong Il. Thought to be in his late 20s, Jong Un was named to senior military and party posts last year, the first official notice that he was being groomed to take over.

While Kim has spent most of his life in North Korea, he studied in Switzerland in the 1990s. He was designated successor in 2009, a U.S. official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. The third son of the deceased dictator, Kim Jong Un was the favorite, according to a Japanese chef who wrote a book about his 13 years of cooking for Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang.

“He was unknown until two years ago,” said Michael Green, senior director of Asian affairs at the National Security Council under President George W. Bush and now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “There are questions about whether enough legwork was done to keep him going. One question now is will Kim Jong Un and others around him do something to prove he’s in command.”

Constant Struggle

He inherits an economy where 24 million people suffer from chronic malnutrition and are taught to believe the country is in a constant struggle with South Korea, the U.S. and Japan after the 1950-53 Korean War ended without a peace treaty. North Korea refuses to abandon its nuclear weapons program in the face of global sanctions and relies on outside handouts to survive, primarily from China, its biggest trading partner.

Kim Jong Il in September 2010 made Kim Jong Un a four-star general and elevated allies to act as his son’s guardians, including sister Kim Kyong Hui and brother-in-law Jang Song Thaek. The country’s stability may turn on whether the family and the military are confident that the younger Kim can extend the dynasty started by his grandfather Kim Il Sung, who founded the nation after World War II.

One month after his promotion, Jong Un stood next to his father at a military parade wearing a black suit with a mandarin collar similar to the style worn by his grandfather. He also emulated Kim Il Sung’s slicked-back hairstyle rather than the bouffant favored by his father.

‘The Kim Brand’

“Jong Un’s main claim to leadership is that he looks very similar to his grandfather,” said Bradley K. Martin, author of “Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty” and a former reporter for Bloomberg News. “What you have here is branding. The Kim brand.”

Kim Jong Un attended a ceremony where his father’s body lay in state yesterday and mourned, the state-run Korean Central News Agency said. A funeral will be on Dec. 28 followed by a national memorial service the next day. Kim Kyong Hui and Jang Song Thaek were among those named to the funeral committee.

Jong Un and his older brother, Kim Jong Chol, were born to Kim Jong Il’s companion, Ko Young Hee. The eldest son, Kim Jong Nam, who had a different mother, fell out of favor after he was caught trying to enter Japan in 2001 using a fake passport. Kim Jong Chol was deemed too unhealthy and mentally weak to be picked, Yonhap News said after Jong Un was promoted last year.

“Jong Un is very similar to his father, even his physical shape,” Japanese sushi chef Kenji Fujimoto wrote in his book, “Kim Jong-Il: North Korea’s Dear Leader.”

Basketball Bond

A Portuguese man named Joao Micaelo attended a school called the Liebefeld Steinhoelzli in Berne, Switzerland with Kim Jong Un, who at the time was called Pak Un. The two bonded over the difficulties of learning German and their passion for NBA basketball and Michael Jordan, Micaelo told newspapers last year including the Daily Telegraph.

School head Peter Burri said in an interview last year that a North Korean named Pak Un was a student in the mid-1990’s, without confirming any other details.

“From what I’ve heard, he was an open and interesting young kid when he was in Switzerland,” former U.S. ambassador to South Korea Donald Gregg said in a television interview. “He knows a great deal more about the west than either his father or grandfather did.”

Supreme Commander

Jong Un didn’t take his father’s place as supreme commander of the army, head of the National Defense Commission or general secretary of the Workers’ Party of Korea. Kim Jong Il took three years after his father died in 1994 before formally assuming the country’s highest posts.

Tensions on the peninsula have risen since North Korean attacks last year on a warship and a disputed island that killed 50 South Koreans. The Obama administration, which along with the United Nations increased sanctions after the incidents, resumed direct talks with North Korea in October on dismantling its nuclear program, including work on a light-water atomic reactor that the Korean Central News Agency said on Nov. 30 was “progressing apace.”

North Korea’s economy shrank in 2010 for the second year in a row, according to South Korea’s central bank. The North’s nominal gross domestic product totaled 30 trillion won ($25.5 billion) last year, compared with South Korea’s 1,173 trillion won, the central bank said in November.

“It’s up to Kim Jong Un to try and seize control,” said Daniel Pinkston, a senior analyst at the Brussels-based International Crisis Group. “This process has been well under way. Kim Jong Il would not select someone who was totally incompetent.”

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