Who will succeed Kim Jong Il?
The North Korean leader Kim Jong Il may now be able to brush his own teeth after an apparent stroke but talk in Asia is turning to the odd cast of characters who may succeed him. The inner workings of the Kim dynasty have always seemed a cross between Shakespeare and The Sopranos.
Wives, concubines, blood brothers and old comrades rise and fall in a confusing and almost completely opaque sequence of dramas.
One son is a confirmed gambler, another is rumoured to be effeminate and practically nothing is known about the third.
At events such as last week’s 60th anniversary parade, the public sees the wooden ranks of generals in the Korean People’s Army, wearing those outsize braided caps, alongside bureaucrats in dark suits with hair dyed jet-black. Outsiders peering in to the Hermit Kingdom are becoming convinced that these men will form some sort of authoritarian collective leadership to replace the ‘Dear Leader’ when he goes.
His departure may be far off – and it is worth remembering that North Korea still officially pays homage to an ‘eternal president,’ Kim Il Sung, father of the present leader, who died in 1994.
In practical terms the South Korean and Japanese intelligence services believe North Korea has functioned for some time as a state governed by a tightly-knit group.
“China would also prefer to see the end of one-man rule and the beginning of a government like the one in Beijing,” said a Chinese academic who follows his country’s foreign policy but asked not to be identified.
But after half a century of dynastic rule by the Kim clan – whose veneration as near-deities is enshrined in what amounts to a state cult - the new regime may feel it needs a figurehead.
And that is a bit of a problem.
“Kim Jong Il relies most heavily on his eldest son” claimed Pyon Jin Il, editor of the Korea Report, a magazine based in Japan.
“He is eventually likely to be named the successor after running the state jointly with other leaders,” he told the Nikkan Gendai evening paper.
Kim Yong Nam, 38, the son in question, is well-known to Japanese newspaper readers.
In 2001 he was detained at Tokyo airport while trying to enter the country on a forged Dominican passport in the name of Pang Xiong.
He sported a diamond-encrusted Rolex watch and was accompanied by a female companion, a small child and a nanny.
After telling immigration officers that he wished to visit Disneyland, he was put on a plane back to the People’s Republic of China, there being no direct flights to North Korea.
He got more media coverage last year when reporters photographed him in the gambling enclave of Macau, a former Portuguese colony in China, entering casinos and expensive restaurants.
The most likely explanation was that he was on a mission to recover more than 12 million pounds frozen in North Korean accounts at the Banco Delta Macao by the US Treasury Department.
Once again, he vanished back to his frosty homeland.
There is a different set of presentational issues over the other contender.
He is Kim Jong Chol, a slender young man now aged about 27 who was last heard of working in the agitation and propaganda department of the Korea Workers Party – the same job that started his father’s ascent.
Jong Chol went to school in Berne, Switzerland, where he was met every day by his supposed parents, employees of the North Korean embassy, who aroused some curiosity by bowing to him deeply.
In his favour is the fact that Kim adored his mother, the dancer Ko Young Hee, who became the ‘Dear Leader’s’ consort and bore him two sons before she died of cancer in Paris in 2003.
Against him, however, is the evidence of none other than Kim Jong Il’s personal Japanese sushi chef, who told television viewers on his return home that the North Korean leader thought Jong Chol “too girlish.”
Kim preferred the scowling, aggressive demeanour of the younger brother Jong Un, the chef claimed.
There seems little doubt that he regarded their mother as the rightful provider of an heir.
In her lifetime, a North Korean army publication said she “assists the Comrade Supreme Commander closest to his body” and quoted Kim himself as saying “she understands me deeper than anyone else.”
Such is the science of political analysis in North Korea, leaving foreign governments to pick over these morsels as they try to work out who might end up in charge of its nuclear arsenal.
Last week the Korea Report editor recommended keeping watch to see whether Kim appeared in public on September 14, a date known as “autumn evening” when Koreans believe the ancestors return to earth to visit loved ones and families.
It seemed as logical a suggestion as anything else.
Michael Sheridan, Far East Correspondent - September 14, 2008 - source TimesOnLine UK
Additional reporting: Shota Ushio/Tokyo