How Kim Jong-un's demise would spark Game of Thrones-style battle for succession as rivals battle power-hungry sister
REPORTS Kim Jong-un's life is hanging in the balance have sparked fears of a brutal power struggle to fill his boots.
The North Korean leader, 36, is said to be fighting for his life in the hermit kingdom after undergoing secret heart surgery earlier this month.
The claims – first made by CNN – have since been denied by both South Korea and China.
However if they prove to be true the future of the nuclear state hangs in the balance as Kim has seemingly not declared a successor.
Some fear the upheaval which would result from his death may even spark a civil war between rival units within the military.
And with no obvious candidate to take over at the helm, a power struggle could take place behind the scenes which wouldn't look out of place on Game of Thrones.
The front-runner is Kim's ambitious sister Kim Yo-jong who is the single most important figure in the North Korean regime after her brother.
The 31-year-old is seen as key to keeping the Kim dynasty in power.
A less likely candidate is Kim's elder brother Kim Jong-chul who may finally choose to step out of the shadows.
He was overlooked by his dad as he was deemed not politically savvy or strong enough to stand up to its enemies.
The 38-year-old was the third of Kim Jong-il's five children but was never seen as a likely ruler due to his "soft personality" and love of Eric Clapton.
Another candidate is Kim's current number two Choe Ryong-hae – who has become the leader's "go to" man in recent years.
He didn't receive particular public attention until Jong Il's death but was then a key asset in securing Kim Jong-un's leadership .
The Kim dynasty started with Kim Il-sun, the first leader and founder of the People’s Republic of North Korea, who died in 1994.
His leadership was passed down to his son, Kim Jong-il who the current Kim succeeded in 2011.
Loyal Yo-jong is the mastermind behind Kim’s carefully constructed public image, both at home and abroad and is said to have the full confidence of her ruthless brother.
She is believed to be the youngest of seven siblings and considered a “favoured member” of the Kim family.
Last month she made her first public statement, condemning South Korea as a “frightened dog barking” after Seoul protested about the North’s recent live-fire military exercise.
However, regional experts warn reports Kim has either died or is seriously ill are not a new thing.
Dr Jim Hoare, Associate Fellow of the Asia-Pacific programme at Chatham House, told the Sun Online: "You have take these reports with a pinch of salt as he has seemingly been dying since the day he took over.
How the new leader will be picked
Not surprisingly, choosing a new leader in North Korea is not a straightforward affair.
As two of the three members of the Politburo Standing Committee are very old, its third member Choe Ryong-hae is seen as the most likely candidate.
Upon the sudden death of Kim strict rules and regulations in the system will likely play a role in deciding who will replace him.
If the leadership is split on a candidate, there will then most likely be a formal vote by the Central Committee.
A session of the Supreme People's Assembly also could be convened to elect a new head of state.
However, those votes would likely be mere formalities as the real decision will be made behind the scenes.
One big indicator on who will take over from Kim – if he dies – will be who is named the chairperson of his funeral committee .
If tradition is followed that person will almost certainly be the designated successor.
"Even if he has a cardio vascular problem, which is a possibility, that does not necessarily mean death.
"This sister is of the bloodline and that is important but the problem is Kim has made no plans for a successor because you don't when you are in your 30s.
"However, she is a woman and there is a lot of chauvinism in both North and South Korea. "
The former diplomat – who has served in both Seoul and Beijing – added if Kim was to die his other elder brother Kim Jong-chul may step forward.
He said: "The brother could be an option if he is still around."
Jong-chul is something of a playboy and has been reportedly been seen in the West attending rock concerts.
Mr Hoare added:"Whatever happens I don't think you can expect any kind of uprising as the elite have too much to lose.
"They know if they are divided they will be vulnerable – particularly from South Korea."
David Maxwell, of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank who has two decades of military service in Asia, warns nothing is straight forward when it comes to North Korea.
“It is unknown whether Kim Jong-un has designated a successor,” he told the Military Times.
"We can speculate that perhaps his sister has been designated as his successor based on her recent promotion and the fact she has begun making official statements in her name beginning last month."
However he added it is not known “whether a woman, despite being part of the Paektu bloodline could become the leader of the Kim family regime.”
And no clear successor could lead to a brutal power struggle and even the collapse of the current regime.
Maxwell warned: "“Units of the North Korean People’s Army are going to compete for resources and survival. This will lead to internal conflict among units and could escalate to widespread civil war.
"We can expect large numbers of the military to resist any and all outside foreign intervention to include from South Korea."
Without a designated heir there will be “chaos, human suffering, instability,” added retired South Korean Lt. Gen. Chun In-bum, the former head of his nation’s special operations forces.
“It’s bad news for everyone, ” he said.
Choe Ryong-hae, 70, is technically head of state in North Korea, although real power is wielded by Kim and his immediate family.
He is considered Kim's right-hand man and is frequently referred to as the regime's "virtual number two official".
In his homeland he is known as the "man of many titles" and is known as Kim's political fixer whose role is to ensure everyone toe the line.
Some reports have even suggested that one of his sons is married to Kim's powerful sister.
Kim Yong-chol, a party vice chairman and former top nuclear envoy would be an obvious choice to help lead the country’s international diplomacy efforts, including the stalled denuclearisation talks with Donald Trump.
Another outsider is Pak Pong-ju a politburo member and former state premier who oversaw the North’s push to introduce more free market functions to revive its economy.
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