The Son Also Rises

On Sept. 27, Kim Jong Un was named to a lofty post in North Korea's army, presumably in preparation to succeed his father as the country's ruler. FP looks at the world's autocrats-in-training who are waiting to take over their fathers' regimes.

Ruler: Kim Jong Il, North Korea

Son: Kim Jong Un

Age: 27 or 28

Ruler: Kim Jong Il, North Korea

Son: Kim Jong Un

Age: 27 or 28

Heir Jordan: No one outside North Korea had seen a photograph of Kim Jong Un as an adult until April, when the government-run Korean Central News Agency released an image of Kim Jong Il touring a steel plant with a 20-something man dressed in a dark suit and a red tie. North Korea watchers believed at the time it was Kim the younger, who Kenji Fujimoto, Kim Jong Il’s former personal chef, describes as “a chip off the old block, a spitting image of his father in terms of face, body shape and personality.”

Facts about Kim fils — who was named a four-star general in the North Korean army at a landmark congress of the North Korean Workers’ Party on Sept. 27, possibly in anticipation of succeeding his ailing father — are hard to come by. He attended an international boarding school in Bern, Switzerland, under a pseudonym until he was 15; his former classmates describe him as a shy boy who loved Michael Jordan, skiing, and action movies. He is the youngest of Kim Jong Il’s three sons, but believed to be his favorite. Kim Jong Nam, Jong Un’s older half brother, was assumed to be the designated heir until he disgraced himself in 2001, getting caught trying to enter Japan on a fake passport. (“I wanted to go to Disneyland,” he told police.) Kim Jong Chul, Jong Un’s older brother, is considered by Jong Il to be “no good because he is like a little girl,” according to Fujimoto.

Jong Un’s presumed succession, however, will be considerably more difficult than his father’s. Jong Il was named Kim Il Sung’s heir two decades before assuming the reins of the family business. Jong Un, by contrast, may have only a few years before his father’s health gives out. And he will inherit a country that is down at the heels even by North Korean standards: A disastrous currency revaluation last winter has reportedly thrown what is left of the country’s economy into chaos, leaving many North Koreans desperately hungry and fomenting a worsening discontent with the Kim regime that has broken into the open in the form of riots. As a neophyte to intrigue within the Workers’ Party and military elite, Jong Un could have power struggles on his hands should his father’s health fail suddenly. And he has a rival in his aunt Kim Kyong Hui, Jong Il’s reportedly vindictive and abusive sister, who was promoted alongside Jong Un on Monday and may be charged with shepherding his development.

Image used on the homepage:  Kok Leng Yeo/Flickr

Above: Jung Yeon-Je/AFP/Getty Images

Ruler: Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasongo, Equatorial Guinea

Son: Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue

Age: 39

Bling King: Teodoro Nguema Obiang has a decidedly unflashy title, minister of agriculture and forestry, and a meager official salary — about $5,000 a month — in his father’s administration, but none of that has kept him from becoming Africa’s most glamorous kleptocrat-heir-apparent. The younger Obiang — nicknamed Teodorín — owns a $35 million estate in Malibu, California, as well as other properties in Los Angeles, Paris, Buenos Aires, and South Africa. His assets (exhaustively chronicled in Harper’s) also include a $33.8 million private jet, a fleet of luxury cars, and a small armada of speedboats. He once ran a record label and for a time dated the rapper Eve (she reportedly dumped him when she learned that his father was accused of having once eaten one of his political opponents). Last year, the New York Times reported that the U.S. Justice Department had spent several years investigating Teodorín, who investigators suspected of funneling some $73 million in laundered money to the United States through shell companies and offshore bank accounts. His family is spending millions on K Street to rehabilitate its reputation in the United States.

Teodorín’s playboy habits were once believed to have taken a toll on his political future, leading his harder-working, half-brother Gabriel — who has the support of other members of the Obiang family, as well as of the international oil companies whose drilling operations provide the regime with most of its wealth — to encroach on his prospects as the country’s next ruler. But Teodorín is rumored to be the elder Obiang’s favorite — no small accomplishment, considering that there are some 40 siblings vying for the attention.

Ruler: Hosni Mubarak, Egypt

Son: Gamal Mubarak

Age: 46

Bullet Ballot: When he was 17 years old, Gamal Mubarak witnessed the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, who was sitting eight seats away from him at a military procession on October 6, 1981, in Cairo when gunmen opened fire. Sadat’s death made Mubarak’s father, then-Vice President Hosni Mubarak, president, an office he has now held for nearly three decades, the longest tenure of any Egyptian leader in a century and a half.

The younger Mubarak began his career in business rather than politics, working as an investment banker with Bank of America first in Cairo and later in London. His grooming for a possible succession began in 2002, when his father named him general secretary of the National Democratic Party’s Policy Committee, the party’s in-house think tank. He is considered a likely contender if Egypt holds presidential elections next year and his father, who is 82, decides to step down. While Gamal has kept mum on his intentions, a mystery campaign nominating him for the nation’s highest office has popped up in some of Cairo’s most downtrodden neighborhoods. He might want to think twice about running, however: His father has survived at least six attempts on his life.

AFP/Getty Images

Ruler: Muammar al-Qaddafi

Son: Saif al-Islam al-Qaddafi

Age: 38

Jet Set: Among Col.
Muammar al-Qaddafi’s eight children, second-eldest son Saif al-Islam does not cut the highest profile: That would be his younger brother Hannibal, a recurring character in the European media thanks to his rock-star-grade rap sheet, which includes a catalog of arrests for drunk driving, domestic violence, and hotel room destruction from Paris to Copenhagen to Geneva. He’s not the most dutiful public servant either — several of his brothers have served as officers in the Libyan army and police, and one of them is the country’s national security adviser. But it’s the intellectual, cosmopolitan Saif who has emerged as the likeliest — if not uncontested — heir to the colonel, now in the 40th year of his eccentric rule.

Depending on who you talk to, Saif is either a force for reformation in the Qaddafi regime, or its apologist. A multimillionaire philanthropist and member of the Davos set, Qadaffi recently completed a Ph.D at the London School of Economics, where he wrote his dissertation on the need to democratize international institutions. And he counts Benjamin Barber, the noted political theorist, democracy advocate, and author of Jihad vs. McWorld as one of his closest advisors. Still, he was forced out of Libya for a time after criticizing his family’s regime. But it was also Saif who brokered the release of Lockerbie bomber Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi, and a 2007 deal in which Libya exchanged five foreign nurses and a doctor, who had been detained under dubious pretenses, for France’s help in setting up a nuclear reactor.

Mahmud Turkia/AFP/Getty Images

Ruler: Islam Karimov, Uzbekistan

Daughter: Gulnara Karimova

Age: 38

Uzbek Idol: Simultaneously her country’s best known businesswoman, pop star, socialite, fashion designer, and diplomat, no other country really has the equal of Uzbekistan’s Gulnara Karimova. Speculation that the longtime strongman Islam Karimov was paving the way for his daughter’s succession kicked into overdrive in 2008 when he appointed her deputy foreign minister in charge of a new department of cultural affairs.

Karimova’s dizzying résumé also includes stints as her country’s ambassador to Spain and the United Nations in Geneva, business ventures including mining in Uzbekistan and real estate and banking in Dubai and Switzerland, and a hit single — which received heavy rotation on Uzbek MTV — recorded under the name GooGooSha, her father’s pet name for her. She also has her own fashion line, Guli, and her writing has been published by U.S. think tanks and magazines. On the downside, she’s had a warrant issued for her arrest by Interpol — she defied a U.S. court order by taking her kids back to Uzbekistan after a nasty divorce, though the charges have since been rendered moot by diplomatic immunity. Her glittering tours of the international celebrity circuit have been dulled somewhat by her father’s horrific human rights record; earlier this year she attended an AIDS fundraiser at the Cannes Film Festival a few months after an Uzbek activist was sentenced to seven years in prison after distributing information about preventing HIV. And the rock star Sting was criticized this year for playing a personal concert for Gulnara in Tashkent.

As a Western-educated woman and Harvard graduate, even someone as well-connected as Gulnara might have difficulty taking power in a conservative Muslim society such as Uzbekistan. But it is thought that her 72-year-old father will ensure that at the very least she maintains an influential enough political position to protect the family’s extensive assets. Worst comes to worst, she and Julio Iglesias could set up shop in Vegas.

Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

Joshua Keating and Charles Homans are associate editors of Foreign Policy.

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