A Dynasty Waits in the Wings Who Will Rule North Korea After Kim?

Kim Jong Il has gone missing. . Despite newly released photos of the "Dear Leader," the rumors abound in his starving nation that he is unfit to govern. Is this the end of the regime or will one of his relatives take over?

In the North Korean capital Pyongyang, the year 2008 is referred to as Juche 97, based on a system that begins with the date of birth of the nation's founder, Kim Il Sung, who was born on April 15, 1912. Although the man, who was elevated to the status of a godlike leader, has been dead for 14 years, he continues to rule North Korea as its eternal president. His official residence is now a mausoleum, from which he watches over the nation. Trains have not stopped in the subway station underneath the white building, built specifically for Kim, in a long time.

North Koreans bow before the statue of the late North Korean leader Kim Il Sung.

North Koreans bow before the statue of the late North Korean leader Kim Il Sung.

Foto: AP

Kim Jong Il, 66, the son of the deceased leader, is in charge of the country's day-to-day government operations. The heir apparent is content with his status as chairman of the powerful military commission and the job of general secretary of the Workers' Party. He allows his roughly 23 million subjects to address him as "Dear Leader."

The division of labor has fallen into place relatively well. In this sense, North Korea is a properly functioning family dictatorship in which the father has given his son legitimacy. Kim Junior cemented his power in the country by capitalizing on the myth of the dead Kim Senior. He has defended his starving nation against the hostile outside world (the Kims have always seen themselves as being surrounded by countless enemies) with threats of nuclear attacks against capitalist society in South Korea and, above of all, the United States.

This went well for a surprisingly long period of time, partly because China, North Korea's patron, has an interest in preserving stability in this nuclear-armed poorhouse. Kim Jong Il has disappeared from the radar screens several times in the past. And now he is out of the public eye once again, leading to great speculation about North Korea in recent weeks. This time, however, the "Dear Leader" is not just absent, but apparently seriously ill.

On Sep. 9, he was conspicuously absent from a celebration marking the country's 60th anniversary, almost certainly an obligatory appearance, even for temperamental leaders. Since then Kim has only appeared in photographs, including new ones released this week, as proof that he is still alive. In a few cases, however, it looks as if the photos have been altered with his image pasted in. Koreans in the north and south and, of course, people around the world, have been thinking about the possible consequences of his becoming incapacitated or even his death.

Swirling Rumors

There is constantly new fodder for the rumors swirling around Kim. In South Korea, the media have reported that Kim suffered a stroke and is partially paralyzed, but can still brush his own teeth. In Tokyo, Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso, citing Japanese intelligence sources, said that although Kim is unwell, the North Korean dictator remains in control. In Beijing, reporters hounded a French neurosurgeon who was supposedly traveling to Pyongyang to treat the ailing Kim, but the doctor denied the rumors.

The regime in Pyongyang has reacted very nervously to the flood of rumors abroad, publishing photos in short succession. In one photo, Kim is shown visiting a military barracks, wearing a gray jacket and his trademark enormous sunglasses. Other photo shows him watching a football game between two army teams.

When the news began to spread that the "Dear Leader" had suffered a second stroke, the regime promptly released a statement saying that the supposedly ailing Kim, attending a military performance, had "waved back to the enthusiastically cheering performers and congratulated them on their successful presentation." But Kim's subjects were not filled in on exactly when and where he had made this supposed appearance.

This Tuesday the state news agency KCNA released undated photos showing Kim visiting factories. He had praised the workers there for meeting its annual quota by the end of October, the agency said.

Instead of quelling doubts, Pyongyang's actions have only intensified rumors about the lingering illness of the great absentee. Since then, speculation has been rampant in China, Japan, South Korea, Russia and the United States over who could succeed Kim and whether the regime could in fact collapse.

Kim has inflicted great suffering on his country. In the mid-1990s, he allowed an estimated two million North Koreans to starve to death. Human rights organizations estimate that more than 200,000 people are starving in concentration camps. Often entire families are sent to these camps. The North Koreans have been living at barely above subsistence level for years. Because diesel fuel is scarce, farmers work the barren fields with oxen and their bare hands.

A corrupt elite, the privileged military leadership at its helm, keeps watch over this suffering nation. The heavily decorated generals, who have built their careers around Kim, were indoctrinated into the belief that the United States would attack their country one day. To keep the military caste content, Kim recently dispensed a fleet of white VW Passats as official cars.

The Kim Dynasty Waits in the Wings

It is quite possible that this regime will collapse without Kim. To prevent a wave of starving refugees from crossing into China, Beijing has increased its troop levels along the border with North Korea. One of the scenarios now being discussed in Tokyo, Seoul and Washington is an invasion by the Chinese People's Liberation Army. If North Korea were to descend into anarchy, China, as a "stabilizing force," could attempt to gain control over Pyongyang's nuclear weapons. Russia is believed to have approved of this plan.

When Kim Il Sung died 14 years ago, his son was ready to succeed him. Unlike his father, however, the "Dear Leader" has not chosen any of his three sons as his successor.

The eldest, Kim Jong Nam, 37, was the product of a liaison between the dictator and Sung Hae Rim, an actress who died in Moscow in 2003. The "little general" spent a portion of his school years in Switzerland. He gained notoriety in 2001, when he attempted to enter Japan with a forged passport from the Dominican Republic. He told Japanese authorities that he was there to visit Disneyland near Tokyo.

After that, Kim Jong Nam and his entourage moved into a villa in Macau, the southern Chinese gambling paradise, where he was frequently seen at the Hotel Mandarin Oriental and a number of casinos. The US government had the North Korean regime's accounts with the nearby Banco Delta Asia frozen for a period of time, because Kim was allegedly using them to launder money from the drug smuggling business and bring counterfeit dollars into circulation. Today Kim Jong Nam lives mainly in Beijing.

Kim Jong Il apparently had bigger plans for his second son, 27-year-old Jong Chol, who, together with his younger brother Jong Un, 25, was the product of Kim's liaison with Ko Young Hee, a dancer. The North Korean propaganda machine had already built up this woman into a quasi mother of the nation, and, as a transitional figure, she might have been able to secure the succession for one of her children, but she died of cancer in 2004.

Kim Ok Pulling the Strings?

Jong Chol also went to school in Switzerland, and he is now believed to have assumed an important position in the party in the Pyongyang. In 2005, he attended a banquet for Chinese President and Communist Party leader Hu Jintao. However, his name has not been mentioned in the state-owned media. His younger brother is also too young to be considered for the leadership spot.

Two other influential figures in the regime are Kim's brother-in-law, Chang Song Taek, 62, and his sister, Kim Kyung Hee, also 62. Both are believed to prefer Kim Jong Nam as heir to the throne.

The experienced Chang is believed to be in charge of the party and internal security, which makes him second-in-command in the hierarchy. The "Dear Leader" once sent Comrade Chang, whose tailored suits have drawn attention during his visits to China, to a rural re-education camp -- the wary dictator's way of occasionally letting even his closest confidantes know that their lives depend on his mercy.

Kim's current partner, Kim Ok, a pianist who is his junior by more than 20 years, is apparently pulling the strings nowadays. She is believed to have been his personal secretary before the relationship started. And if the succession is to be handled more or less smoothly, Kim's daughter Sol Song and his half-brother Kim Pyong II, a high-ranking officer who was shunted off to Finland and Poland as Pyongyang's ambassador there, will likely play a role.

The Kim clan is relatively large. Like the rest of the country's ruling class, the family lives in seclusion, leading a life of its own in the midst of this impoverished country. By comparison, the Kremlin prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union was an open book.

The central organ of the Korean Workers' Party is a newspaper called Rodong Sinmun (Newspaper of the workers), and officials in Seoul, Tokyo and Beijing scan the paper regularly for signals of change. "Our revolution has entered the stadium in which the third and fourth generation are playing the main role," the paper wrote in a recent issue. "Only when the third and the fourth generation have become firmly established can the fifth and sixth generation take on the baton of the revolution."

What can this mean? Is it a reference to one of Kim's children? Or is Rüdiger Frank, a German Korea expert, right when he assumes that the party, instead of the family, will name the country's next leader?

Not even Beijing has a more conclusive take on the events in North Korea. Chinese experts have added fed the rumors with their own theory. They believe that no family member stands a chance of succeeding Kim. Instead, a junta comprised of military officials and civilians will take the reins and secure their hold on power.

Unless, of course, the "Dear Leader" surprises everyone and resurfaces.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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