Since Kim Jong Un took office in 2011, rumors have been swirling about him.
His long absence from the public eye has prompted speculation about his health, and who will succeed him.
Although North Korean political moves suggest preparation for such a shift, experts say it is impossible to predict who will be next.
A daily selection of top stories, based on your reading preferences, is available to you. Loading Click Sign up to receive marketing emails and other offers from Insider.
Kim Jong Un is one of the most closely monitored and mysterious world leaders. Since he assumed power in 2011, political and diplomatic intrigue have surrounded the dictator.
Rumours have circulated that he is ill. His daily location and condition are so hazy that speculations about his death grew until he was seen again in public in 2020.
Although Kim has proved the rumors false so far, recent developments suggest that North Korea is preparing for the day when Kim Jong Un will be truly gone.
Rule without rules
Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. AP; Getty; KCNA via Reuters
The Workers' Party (WPK) is the ruling party in North Korea. There are no rules of succession. Analysts can only make predictions about Kim's successor based on past transfers of power.
It is not intentional that there are no succession protocols. In its 73-year history, North Korea has had only three leaders.
Kim Il Sung was the first leader of the organization. He named his son Kim Jong Il as his successor in 1980. This was 14 years before his death in 1993. Kim Jong Il deliberately avoided naming a successor until his death. This was likely due to his own actions that had undermined the father's system in certain respects.
Kim Jong Il didn't name Kim Jong Un his successor until it became obvious that he wouldn't be fully recovered from the severe stroke he suffered in 2008. It took two years to make the official announcement. Kim Jong Il was only heir-apparent for one year before he became leader.
Although young and inexperienced Kim Jong Un has steadily consolidated his power.
In 2013 he executed his uncle, Jang Song Thaek, for "anti-party" and "counter-revolutionary acts." Jang was appointed by Kim Jong Il as a sort of regent. One defector from North Korea claims that Jang's influence made him a target of the younger Kim.
Kim Jong Un's half-brother Kim Jong Nam was assassinated at Kuala Lumpur in 2017. Kim Jong Nam, the eldest son and vocal critic of the regime, was assassinated in Kuala Lumpur.
Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un visit an under-construction power station in August 2001. API/Gamma Rapho via Getty Images
Kim Jong Un was much younger than his grandfather and father when he assumed power. He has not had to name a successor. He has actively avoided the appointment of a number-two official.
Bruce Bennett, a senior defense analyst with the RAND Corporation, stated that Kim Jong Un used a typical method to make someone appear like he was number two for a year or so, and then purge them." Insider spoke to Bruce Bennett.
Sometimes, purging means reeducation and a decrease in rank and position rather than execution.
Bennett stated that Kim's purges were a regular occurrence because he doesn’t want anyone to look like an alternative. He wants total control.
However, several recent decisions suggest that Kim Jong Un's and WPK leaders are preparing to replace Kim.
These are the first two articles of a series rule changes made at the Eighth Party Congress in January.
Kim and senior Workers' Party of Korean Central Committee and Provincial Party Committee officials in an undated photograph released June 8, 2021. KCNA/via REUTERS
Article 28 provides that any member of the five-man Presidium of Politburo, which is the highest body of WPK, can preside over a meeting, if the general secretary, Kim Jong Un, gives his consent. Kim is no longer required to attend Presidium meetings or oversee them.
Article 26 creates the new post of "first secretary". This is by far the most significant change. This title isn't a new one. It was used by Kim Jong Un before he became "chairman" and "general secretary" respectively in 2016, 2016 and 2021.
However, the "first secretary" now refers to the first deputy to the general secretary. This creates a position similar to vice president. It is a radical change since neither the WPK or any ruling communist party have ever officially designated a second in command.
However, no one has been named first secretary and nothing says that the first secretary will automatically be the leader if the general secretary dies.
Bennett stated that the arrangement "raises interesting questions." Bennett asked, "Would number two simply take over? Or would senior Politburo members come together to make a decision?"
Doubts about our future
Kim's weight loss has prompted speculation about Kim's health. Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service via AP / Insider
Kim Jong Un's condition remains a mystery. According to intelligence sources, Kim lost 44 pounds after he disappeared again from the public eye for more than a month.
Kim's weight loss was so obvious that a Pyongyang resident called Kim "emaciated" while he watched state television. Kim was even slimmer at the parade last month.
"The truth is that we don't really know what's happening with his health," stated Sue Mi Terry, an expert in North Korea and security issues in Northeast Asia. "What we know is that Kim’s health will be the most significant wildcard event for North Korea, and for North Korea’s stability."
North Korea is already facing food shortages and flooding, as well as a weak economy. These challenges could lead to the destabilization of North Korea's Kim Jong Un.
Terry, now the director of the Hyundai Motor-Korea Foundation Center for Korean History and Public Policy, said that it is a high-risk and high-impact situation for North Korea.
The big question is, therefore, who would succeed Kim Jong Un if he died or becomes incapacitated?
Kim Yo Jong Un's sister, Kim Yo Jong Un, at South Korea's 2018 Winter Olympic Games, February 10, 2018. (Photo by Jean Catuffe/Getty Images).
Some speculate that Kim Jong Un's children may be too young for someone from the Politburo, or the military to take over the reins.
Terry stated that "Ultimately, it is something that's very unknowable". He also said that "by the time that we assess something or someone, that means that Kim Jong Un would know about it and that that guy would have vanished."
Terry stated, "If someone has that kinda intent, they would put down their heads and act as if they did."
Kim's past history suggests that he is unlikely to choose a successor. This could fuel rumors about Kim's health and possibly undermine his power.
Many see Kim Yo Jong as his sister. She is a Kim family member and has the full trust of Kim Jong Un. You could count on her to be the regent for Kim Jong Un's children.
Kim Yo Jong, North Korea's highest-ranking body, was promoted to the State Affairs Commission last month. She also plays a key role in overseeing South Korean relations.
Terry stated that she was "probably the most important figure in Kim's life because Kim trusts her."