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     Apr 28, 2006
On pins and needles over Kim Jong-il's heir
By Rian Jensen

It's usually not big news when government officials are seen wearing lapel pins - unless they are North Korean and the pins feature a picture of dictator Kim Jong-il's son. Then the talk turns to speculation on the Dear Leader's successor.

Reports have been circulating during the past few months about Korean Workers' Party (KWP) cadres and cabinet members getting pins or badges with the image of Kim Jong-il's second son Kim Jong-chol on the occasion of the elder Kim's 64th birthday on February 16. Seoul-based Yonhap news agency, citing an unnamed South Korean government source, confirmed recently

that North Korean officials were observed wearing the lapel pins.

That's significant in that it's seen as yet another sign Kim Jong-il is getting closer to naming a successor - though that does not mean he is close to giving up power any time soon. It has been expected his successor would be one of his three sons. The Yonhap report, coupled with sketchy reports beginning in 2002, suggests that the second son has emerged as the front-runner to assume leadership in a third generation of the Kim dynasty.

Yonhap on April 5 quoted a source inside Seoul's intelligence agency as saying a South Korean agent in China "submitted a report that he saw North Korean officials wearing Kim Jong-chol's badge at a North Korean restaurant in Beijing". The rank and identity of the officials remain publicly unknown, as does their status as either North Korean diplomats in China or Pyongyang-based bureaucrats visiting Beijing on official business.

An heir emerges
These reports suggest a formal process is under way to incorporate Kim Jong-chol into the mythology of the ruling elite, and bolster claims from the past few years that suggest he is next in line to take the helm of the Hermit Kingdom.

A Japanese newspaper in February published what it called an internal document from the ruling KWP, headed by Kim Jong-il, that suggested top officials "recommend the dignified Kim Jong-chol to the top echelon of the party".

Chinese diplomatic sources in November reported that North Korea had established a department inside the KWP to promote the idea of Jong-chol's succession among party loyalists and to educate the prospective heir in political and governance issues. This department, which consists of two bureaus of 10 officials each, is under the control of the powerful Organization and Guidance Department and is the result of KWP bureaucratic reorganization initiatives in 2004.

Part of that restructuring led to demotion of Kim Jong-il's brother-in-law, Chang Song-taek, who was then a serious contender in the succession race, leading some analysts to conclude that Kim was preparing to clear the way of any possible challengers to his son. The activities that now promote Kim Jong-chol as heir apparent are under the ultimate authority of Kim Jong-il's National Defense Commission, a dominant show of political support among the bureaucratic elite.

A month earlier, in October, Chinese President Hu Jintao reportedly met Kim Jong-chol at a family dinner during a state visit to Pyongyang, leading to speculation about the significance. State-run media in North Korea issued no announcement concerning the possible meeting, and sources in the South Korean Foreign Ministry and intelligence agencies expressed doubt and outright skepticism.

Other developments suggest that state authorities have embarked on a wide-ranging campaign to present Kim Jong-chol not only as heir to his father, but also to the institutions and discourse of state ideology. This grooming process seems to mimic the one that prepared his father to assume power from the late Kim Il-sung in 1994.

Beginning in 2002, the North Korean military initiated an idolization campaign of Kim Jong-chol's mother, Koh Young-hee, calling her the country's "respected mother" and "most loyal companion" to Kim Jong-il. This resembled similar efforts to promote Kim Jong-il's own mother. That the motherly praise is from inside the military establishment is important, as it is the key source of power in the North's politics and served as a key base of support for Kim Jong-il's own ascent.

Sons Kim Jong-un, 22, and Kim Jong-chol, 24, have the same mother, who was Kim Jong-il's third wife (some suggest mistress) and who died in 2004, while the eldest son, Kim Jong-nam, who will be 35 on May 10, is the product of his first wife. A second marriage produced a daughter who is not thought to be factor in the succession.

Other developments include "workplace exalting" of Kim Jong-chol and the hanging of his portrait in the Central Committee Building of the KWP. These activities are "relevant to the North Korean regime's succession process", according to Cheong Seong-chang of South Korea's Sejong Institute.

Perhaps most interesting, Kim Jong-chol allegedly inaugurated his forays into politics under a pseudonym, as did his father in the 1970s. A member of the South Korean National Assembly suggested in February 2004 that he was operating under the alias of Pak Se-bong. Moreover, Kim's son emerged under his official name in April 2004 to be named as deputy director of the party's Propaganda and Agitation Department, the same position held by his father in 1969.

Family feud
The rise of Kim Jong-chol as possible successor comes against the decline of other possible contenders, namely his brother and half-brother.

Kim Jong-nam, the half-brother of Jong-chol, was widely assumed to be the heir until 2001, when he embarrassed his father with his highly publicized arrest in Japan while en route to Tokyo Disneyland. He was carrying a large sum of cash and traveling on a fake Dominican Republic passport. Recent reports that tie Jong-nam to the counterfeiting of US dollars through Macau - which prompted swift US action against Pyongyang to curtail the activities - have diminished his standing even further. A South Korean intelligence analyst said in February that Jong-nam has been rendered even more unsuitable for leadership in "his father's mind due to the Macau bank problem".

Kim Jong-un, the youngest son, is considered too callow for political work, though South Korean intelligence analysts have carefully considered him as a successor despite his age. In 2003, Kim Jong-il's former chef published a book under the pseudonym Kenji Fujimoto that suggested Jong-chol was unfit for leadership - making Jong-un the default successor (see Cook and tell: Another chef spills the beans, July 2, 2003).

Imminent retirement?
The Dear Leader is now the same age as Kim Il-sung was when he formally designated his son Jong-il as heir. But though he is unlikely to relinquish power any time soon, it appears a formal naming of his heir, in particular his second son, is also similarly doubtful in the near future. Intelligence analysts in Seoul and Tokyo had suspected the announcement of an heir would be made on the 60th anniversary of the KWP last October.

That did not happen, and Kim Jong-il issued a directive in December that banned all talk about succession issues. With speculation still rife, some analysts now say that Kim, despite sporadic reports about ill health, will retain power until at least 2012, his 70th birthday and the 100th anniversary of the state's founding ideology, juche or self-reliance. Huh Moon-young, director of North Korea studies at the Korea Institute for National Unification (KINU) in Seoul, suggested that "the North Korean ruling class, in its own way, is rather agonizing over what to do regarding the future of Korean people to mark such an occasion [in 2012], while we [in the South] are busy speculating on the power-succession issue".

And a certain degree of uncertainty continues to surround Kim Jong-chol's suitability for leadership that may contribute to father's hesitancy to make a formal announcement. Bizarre rumors persist in Japanese and South Korean media about a hormonal-imbalance condition that leaves Jong-chol with an excess of female hormones. These odd, unsubstantiated reports command a certain following, or at least acknowledgement, within the Southern establishment. Lee Kyo-duk, director of planning and coordination at KINU, has called Jong-chol's condition a "fatal disease" and "allegedly incurable".

In any case, the overriding imperative for North Korea regarding succession is to effect a transition of power that does not destabilize the regime. And despite propaganda in official discourse and preparations in state and party institutions for consensus-building around Kim Jong-chol, that remains a daunting and largely uncertain enterprise.

Rian Jensen is associate editor of China Brief, a fortnightly journal published by the Jamestown Foundation in Washington, DC. The views expressed are his own and do not represent those of the Jamestown Foundation.

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Kim's birthday no retirement party (Feb 16, '06)


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