By Andrei Lankov
Korea Times Columnist
North Korea watchers are a seriously overworked group these days as important and often unexpected events happen in a quick succession. A missile launch in early April was followed by a nuclear test in late May, and now an ICBM is being moved to a launch pad. A consensus is that all these moves are primarily aimed at the US on assumption that a tougher position will allow them to squeeze more aid from Washington eventually.
We have seen this before, but this time the North Koreans behave with unusual intensity, so many observers came to suspect that this intensity is somehow related to North Korean domestic issues.
Of all possible explanations, the coming succession is mentioned most frequently. North Korea is a hereditary dictatorship, and Kim Jong-il is becoming visually old and fragile, so a decision on succession is widely expected to come soon.
It was against this background that some major South Korean news outlets reported early this week breaking news from Pyongyang.
A boy identified as Kim Jong-un, the third son of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, is seen in this undated photo provided by a Japanese national known as Kenji Fujimoto in Tokyo, Thursday. Fujimoto said he was a cook for Kim Jong-il for 13 years in North Korea. According to Fujimoto, Kim Jong-un was aged 11 in this photo. Part of the characters written by Fujimoto at the bottom of the picture read, “Received from Prince Kim Jong-un. March 31, 2001, 1:30 AM in Wonsan.”
If these reports are to be believed, Kim Jong-il's youngest son, Jong-un, has been secretly anointed as a successor to his father, and now full-scale preparations for a dynastic transfer of power have began. These reports are based on a secret telegram, which was allegedly sent from Pyongyang to the North Korean overseas missions.
This telegram was cited by National Intelligence Service officers who briefed the National Assembly's Intelligence Committee last Monday.
What does it all mean? Before we start answering this question, an important caveat is necessary: reports about Jong-un's promotion are based on the thinnest of possible evidence. It is not known for sure what was said during the Monday briefing. This was a confidential meeting. The telegram itself (if it exists, of course) might have been misinterpreted or even forged. In other words, while the general public has come to see succession as a hard fact, it is not the case yet.
Finally, even if the reports do not deviate from the truth too far, the succession in North Korean system is a lengthy and highly visible process. For all practical purposes, North Korea is an absolute monarchy, but it has no belief in the sacred nature of the ruling family.
The Kims' right to rule has always been justified by references to their superhuman wisdom, leadership qualities and other individual virtues, not to some special role of the family as such. When in the 1970s Kim Jong-il was appointed a successor to his father, it was never explained as because of their blood relations.
The propaganda machine insisted that Kim Jong-il's own unique virtues and his unprecedented popularity among the 'working masses' made him a successor.
Therefore, a secret cable to foreign missions is not enough (even if such cable really exists). An Appointment should be accompanied by a long and very public campaign where the future successor will be extolled as another "genius of leadership" and "guiding star of the 21 century".
Without such a campaign, no appointment can become a fact of real politics. So far, no signs of such a campaign have appeared. The North Korean media remains completely silent on the issue.
Therefore, we cannot rule out that the entire story of "Jong-un's appointment" might eventually become a non-event, a curious case of journalistic hype based on the misinterpreted or faked evidence. We will know for sure pretty soon, though. If by the end of this year North Korean media starts extolling some (probably unnamed and enigmatic) rising political star, it will mean that the reports about coming succession are correct. If newspapers remain silent for a long time, the entire Jong-un's appointment story should be discarded.
But let's assume that Jong-un's appointment has indeed happened, so all appropriate propaganda campaigns will follow in due time. What does it mean for North Korea's future?
Little is known about Jong-il's children, and even their pictures are difficult to find (we have only a childhood picture of Jong-un). However, if we consider what is known or believed to be known, Jong-un seems to be a very unlikely candidate for the job.
To start with, he is very young. Born in 1984, Kim Jong-un is only 25 years old. In a country where age and seniority are very important, this is major handicap for an aspiring leader. His mother died few years ago, so he cannot rely on her and her clan for advice and support.
To complicate things further, Jong-un has been overseas for a long time. Since the late 1980s, the scions of the North Korean aristocracy are often educated in the West, with Switzerland being a preferable choice.
Reputedly, Jong-un spent a few years in Bern, attending an international school there. This means that the new heir designate might have good knowledge of the outside world, but poor understanding of the country he is expected to run. Nothing is known about his administrative exploits, and even if he does have some job (reputedly, in the National Defense Commission), he has not had enough time to acquire sufficient experience.
The decision to promote such a person (assuming that this decision has been made) might have only one possible explanation: Somebody needs a convenient puppet that will carry some legitimacy for the Kim clan, but will be unable to interfere in the political decision making.
Jong-un's most peculiar feature is his weakness, and such feature might make him a perfect choice for some ambitious puppet-masters in Pyongyang.
So, if the recent tidal wave of 'succession talk' is based on facts, it might indicate that some people at the top, being aware of Kim Jong-il's deteriorating health, decided to find somebody who will obediently follow their orders, while being unable to create his own group of support. If this is indeed the case, this means that even after Kim Jong-il's eventual death, the same people will be running the country at least, for a while.
Of course, it is not going to continue forever. Old people (and we can be sure that puppet-masters are quite old) usually die, while young and inexperienced princes gradually acquire necessary knowledge and powerful friends. So, the next decades are not going to be dull for North Korean watchers, irrespectively of reliability of the recent "Kim Jong-un story".