Kim Jong Un’s Uncle Could Be a Possible Successor in North Korea: Experts

However, some experts aren't so sure
April 29, 2020 Updated: April 29, 2020

Kim Pyong Il, 65, the last known surviving son of North Korea’s founder, Kim Il Sung, could be the one to take over the reclusive, communist country should leader Kim Jong Un be incapacitated.

Kim Pyong Il, the uncle of Kim Jong Un, spent about four decades in diplomatic posts in Poland, Finland, Hungary, Bulgaria, and the Czech Republic before he returned to Pyongyang in 2019, according to news reports.

For the past several weeks, there has been mounting speculation over Kim Jong Un’s health, with several reports in Hong Kong and Japanese media claiming he’s dead or in a vegetative state. South Korean officials have gone on the record to say that they believe he is still alive and in control of the country, with South Korean Unification Minister Kim Yeon-chul stipulating Tuesday that Kim is trying to avoid the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) coronavirus.

Since Kim Jong Un hasn’t named an heir, it’s not clear who would succeed him. His younger sister, Kim Yo Jong, has been eyed by some experts as the possible one to be next in line.

In the 1970s, Kim Pyong Il was passed over by his brother, Kim Jong Il, to succeed Kim Il Sung. Kim Jong Il later took over the regime in 1994 and ruled until his death in 2011, naming Kim Jong Un as his heir.

But with Kim Jong Un potentially being out of the picture, some watchers of North Korea think he might be selected over Kim Yo Jong due to his gender in the male-dominated society, according to a Bloomberg News report. North Korea has only been ruled by men.

Kim Yo Jong, sister of North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un attends wreath laying ceremony at Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum in Hanoi
Kim Yo Jong, sister of North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un attends wreath-laying ceremony at Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum in Hanoi, Vietnam, on March 2, 2019. (Reuters/Jorge Silva/Pool)

Thae Yong Ho, who was North Korea’s deputy ambassador to the United Kingdom before defecting in 2006, told the news outlet that “the problem is that a Kim Yo Jong-led North Korea is unlikely to be sustainable.” A leadership with her as the figurehead would lead to internal strife, he argued. Kim Yo Jong currently serves as an adviser to her brother and is a top propaganda official.

“To avoid this, some in the leadership would try to bring back Kim Pyong Il, who’s now under house arrest, to the center of the power,” he said.

Kim Byeong-ki, a member of the South Korean parliament’s intelligence committee, said Sunday that there is no chance Kim Pyong Il is named as the leader. “I laugh off these theories,” he said on social media.

Rachel Minyoung Lee, a former North Korea analyst with the U.S. government, told the outlet that it’s not likely he will be tapped.

“Kim Yo Jong has a special status in the regime, and I think in this case, her connection to the Kim family trumps her gender,” she said.

After Kim Jong Un took power in 2011, reports said he eliminated any potential rivals, including his uncle, Jang Song Thaek, and is believed to have assassinated his half-brother, Kim Jong Nam, in Malaysia.

Lubomir Zaoralek, the Czech Republic’s foreign affairs minister from 2014 through 2017, told Bloomberg that Kim Pyong Il didn’t appear to be from communist North Korea.

“You could see that he was established in Europe and that he has lived his life here,” Zaoralek said. “He was always careful in what he had to say, but it always made perfect sense. And it seemed that he lived a much freer life here than other North Koreans.”