KEY POINTS

  • Kim Pyong Il has suddenly reappeared and is being talked about as a successor to Kim Jong Un
  • North Korea hasn't declared if Kim Jong Un is alive, dead or near death
  • Kim Pyong Il is Kim Jong Un's uncle and brother to Kim Jong Il

Reports about the alleged life-threatening injuries of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un has led the country's watchers to openly speculate Kim Pyong Il, his uncle and the only surviving son of Kim Il Sung, is being considered for the role of Supreme Leader.

Kim Pyong Il was exiled from North Korea from 1979 to 2019. He was denied the chance to succeed his father as the country's second Supreme Leader due to his reputation as a party-going womanizer.

This flaw allowed his late half-brother, Kim Jong Il, to convince their father to send Kim Pyong Il into diplomatic exile over the next few decades. Kim Jong Il succeeded their father as Supreme Leader in July 1994, and died in December 2013.

Kim Pyong Il was banished from North Korea in 1979 and made ambassador to the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. He then served as an ambassador to other Warsaw Pact countries, and returned to North Korea for good only in November 2019 after retiring as the country's ambassador to the Czech Republic.

Kim Pyong Il was born to Kim Il Sung and Kim Song Ae, his former secretary. Kim had one younger brother, Jong Il, and an older half-sister, Kyong Hui, who was married to the late Gen. Chang Sung Taek. Chang was executed in December 2013 on orders of Kim Jong Un for alleged counter-revolutionary activities.

The fact Kim Pyong Il's name is even being mentioned as the fourth Supreme Leader indicates there are powerful opponents to a woman taking on this revered role. The woman, who still appears the likeliest successor, is Kim Yo Jong, Kim Jong Un's 32 year-old sister and confidant.

Some North Korea watchers believe the need for Kim Jong Un to be succeeded by a man might be enough to give Kim Pyong Il the momentum he needs to seize control and extend the Kim dynasty's rule over North Korea.

Unfortunately for Kim Pyong Il, his four decades-long absence from the seat of power in Pyongyang has left him with feeble influence and far too few allies willing to fight for him. 

Kim Yo-Jong Kim Yo Jong, sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, attends the Women's Ice Hockey Preliminary Round - Group B game between Switzerland and Korea on day one of the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympic Games at Kwandong Hockey Centre in Gangneung, South Korea, Feb. 10, 2018. Photo: Getty Images

Thae Yong Ho said North Korea's leaders will likely be averse to handing over power to Kim Yo Jong. Thae was North Korea’s deputy ambassador to the U.K. before defecting to the South in 2016.

“The problem is that a Kim Yo Jong-led North Korea is unlikely to be sustainable,” said Thae. “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."

Kim Pyong Il is only being championed by those that dismiss Kim Yo Jong due to her age and gender, surmises Rachel Minyoung Lee, a former North Korea analyst with the U.S. government.

“It is highly unlikely that he has the connections or the support base he needs to be the next North Korean leader,” she said to The New York Post. “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.”

Other veteran North Korean watchers concur with Lee's opinion but for different reasons. Kim Byeong-ki, a member of the South Korean parliament’s intelligence committee, claims there's no indication Kim Pyong Il might be the successor.

“I laugh off these theories,” he said on social media.

The reasons for Kim Jong Un's absence since April 12 remain a mystery. On Tuesday, Rodong Sinmun, the official newspaper of the Central Committee of the Workers' Party of Korea, reported Kim Jong Un writing a message to builders working on a tourism project in Wonsan. It's been consistently reported he is in Wonsan where his family owns a luxurious mansion and a hospital.

“Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un has sent his appreciation to the workers who devoted themselves to building the Wonsan-Kalma tourist zone,” wrote Rodong Sinmun.

State-owned Korean Central Broadcasting Station also made a similar report.