North Korea News: What Kim Jong-Un and Bashar Al-Assad Have In Common

It turns out that North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un and Syria’s Bashar Al-Assad have more in common than just a spot on Obama's enemies list. Furthermore, the common element in both of their personal stories may well help explain why they have both found themselves in such precarious geo-political situations.

Neither Kim Jong-Un nor Bashar Al-Assad was meant to rule his respective country. Both had older brothers that were expected to ascend to power, but couldn’t. And, as such, neither Kim Jong-Un nor Bashar Al-Assad has the training or the experience to be a legitimate world leader.

“The younger Assad had never intended to rule — he trained in London as an ophthalmologist. At 29, when his older brother died, he was suddenly thrust into the role of dictator in waiting,” writes Foreign Policy. For an ophthalmologist, he really seems to have gotten the hang of it.

Basel Al-Assad, the eldest son of former President Hafez Al-Assad (1930-2010), died in a car accident in 1994 at age 33. He was widely considered to be the likely successor to his father as he was the only son involved in government and his father, the president, was so fond of him that he liked to be called Abu Basil, which means “Father of Basil” in Arabic and is a sign of honor.

Likewise, Kim Jong-Un, currently the world’s youngest head of state at age 30 and the youngest son of former Supreme Leader Kim Jong-Il (1941-2011), did not expect to become North Korea’s suryong. He was informed in 2009 that he had become the heir apparent.

His oldest brother, Kim Jong-Nam, (the love-child of an affair that Kim Jong-Il had with an actress) was considered the top contender to succeed his father until 2001, when he attempted to travel to Tokyo Disneyland on a false passport. The North Korean chose his false identity carefully. According to Mental Floss, “he attempted to pass himself off as a Dominican named Pang Xiong (which translates as “Fat Bear” in Chinese). Japanese authorities, who know a fake Dominican when they see one, deported the heir apparent of North Korea to China.”

The second son of Kim Jong-Il, Kim Jong-Chul, was considered effeminate and weak by his father and thus ineligible to succeed him.

As such, Kim Jong-Un found himself as the supreme leader of a nuclear-armed state, shortchanged of both life experience as well as any other experience or training considered desirable for a head of state, particularly one with absolute power and command of the world’s fourth-largest military.

Do not let a quick Wikipedia search fool you: Despite the fact that Kim Jong-Un was named as the equivalent of a four-star general and given titles such as the vice chairman of the Central Military Commission in September 2010, he had never served a single day in the military.

So what do these dictators have in common? Older brothers who were supposed to do their dirty work for them. This is not to say that Kim Jong-Un’s Disney-obsessed older brother would have done any better, but rather to draw light to the fact that both dictators were not groomed properly for their roles, given the unexpected natures of their successions.

Unfortunately, and perhaps partially because of this shared narrative, “Pyongyang shares with the Damascus regime a key ingredient that can produce open conflict — an inexperienced ruler with shaky legitimacy,” writes Foreign Policy.

Bashar Al-Assad is already fully engulfed in civil war, and it is not entirely impossible that Kim Jong-Un could blunder his way into a serious conflict on the Korean Peninsula. Let’s hope that we don’t need to add “involvement in open conflict” to our list of comparisons anytime soon.

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Anne Jamison

Anne Jamison majored in International Politics at Georgetown University. She currently resides in Washington, DC.

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