TUMEN, China - For people in the Chinese city of Tumen, North Korea is an
everyday topic. They even talk about it while going for a walk along the river
- probably because they can actually see the isolated state just across the
Mr Jin is one of them. "People here know [more about] what's going in North
Korea than North Koreans in North Korea," he said. "They censor information
Like many Chinese citizens in this border city, Jin is of Korean origin and
speaks Korean. As he leaned his back against the fence on the river, he said:
"I heard Kim Jong-il's third son was chosen as the next leader of North Korea.
Many people here
know of that." His wife, who stood next to him, nodded her head in agreement.
North Korea's senior-level cadre was informed about the heir designation,
according to him. "They are in preparation of officially announcing it. But it
may take some time because they need to do some housekeeping."
What Jin didn't share is where he heard such news. But, he said, "This city has
a swarm of people who are interested in knowing that.” He continued with an air
of confidence in his voice: "When it comes to North Korea, China knows better
than any other country in the world."
Over the years, there has been a glut of speculation and news reports that the
aging North Korean leader, Kim Jong-il, sooner or later would nominate one of
his sons as heir designate. He is 66 and reportedly suffered a stroke last
The heir selection prediction started with the eldest son, Jong-nam. But he
allegedly blew his suzerain chance with the famous Tokyo Disneyland debacle in
2001, when he was allegedly arrested for travelling on a false Dominican
passport, intending to visit the theme park. Until last year, the focus was on
the second son, Jong-chol. Most experts believed a collective leadership would
emerge, with Jong-chol acting as a figurehead and his uncle, Jang Song-taek, to
be his mentor and adviser. Then, most recently, the third son, Jong-un, emerged
as the new heir-apparent, as South Korea's Yonhap news agency reported on
After so much hearsay and speculation over the years, many analysts, including
Cheong Seong-chang, a Seoul-based expert on North Korea, have remained prudent
on the report. Nonetheless, Cheong said, if a decision for the heir is to be
made, Jong-un would stand a better chance over his two older brothers.
"There is good possibility for Jong-un to become the heir," said Cheong, who
heads the Inter-Korean Relations Studies Program at the Sejong Institute. "I
hear that people have been lining up around Jong-un - especially since 2000.
Jong-un has been widening his sphere of influence and he displays a knack for
Cheong explained how Jong-un's leadership style differs from that of Jong-nam.
"Let's use the example of a basketball game. Let's say the game was just over.
Jong-nam will tell the players, 'Good job!' That's it. On the other hand,
Jong-un will approach one of the players and ask him why he had passed the ball
in such a way at a certain time of the game. Jong-un pays attention to
The Yonhap report said that after Kim Jong-il tapped Jong-un to be his
successor, he sent his nomination to the leadership of the ruling party around
January 8. But it failed to explain whether the particular date carries any
significance. "It was Jong-un's birthday. In the monarchal North Korea, the
most important national holiday is none other than the monarch's birthday. Kim
Jong-il's ascendance was also made just three days before his birthday," Cheong
However, Jong-un is too young - only 26 years old - to rule a country. He has
never had any official post in the North Korean bureaucratic apparatus to learn
the loop either. This is in great contrast to Kim Jong-il, who was groomed for
20 years, taking various posts within the government before he was finally put
in place to command the country.
From Cheong's perspective, such views reveal the typical outsider’s perspective
of - as well limitations to understanding - North Korea. "When Jong-un's father
Kim Jong-il purged his political rivals, he was only 25. That's certainly too
young an age to carry out such a task, if we look at it from the outside
world's view. But we need to consider that Jong-il grew up with a special
privilege like a prince," Cheong said, and cautioned against using any outside
normative gauge to assess North Korea.
The former North Korean Workers' Party secretary Hwang Jang-yup, the highest
North Korean official ever to defect to the South, once said that Kim Jong-il
was very precocious and "unbelievably political" even at young age. When the
young Jong-il visited Moscow, for example, he ordered the senior North Korean
officials around, Hwang recalled.
"People already saw leadership potential in Kim Jong-il, saying he would
definitely amount to be a great [leader]. Jong-un is the same. He is young, but
that shouldn't automatically dismiss him or be grounds for underestimating him.
Like his father, Jong-un displays a very political adroitness," Cheong said.
As for Jong-un's lack of exposure to real politics, Cheong pointed out that it
was Jong-un (and his immediate older brother Jong-chol) who usually accompanied
Kim Jong-il on his numerous inspection visits to various military units. "What
else can be a better hands-on political leadership class than that?"
Cheong also dismisses the many analysts who increasingly point out the
possibility of a power struggle surrounding the heir designation. Cheong
believes the handover will be smooth once Kim Jong-il makes it official. "In
North Korea, Kim Jong-il's word is the law. The handover will proceed without a
glitch. If there is any crisis, it then comes after the handover of the power,
not before. It particularly depends on how the new ruler manages the country."
Cheong said the view that turmoil or a military coup could happen in North
Korea is fundamentally flawed. "Arguing for the possibility of such an extreme
scenario [is like] missing the yolk in an egg - the key component."
According to Cheong, there are three components to consider when analyzing
North Korea. First, what happens to the power structure when Kim Jong-il
disappears from the picture. Second, the cohesiveness of the ruling elites.
Third, people's attitude toward the political system. "If we consider all these
three factors, and know how North Korea is run, a sudden collapse by internal
turmoil is not likely," he said.
Chu Shulong, an American-educated political scientist at Tsinghua University in
Beijing, agrees. "North Korea is like China. Whether you like it or not, it has
been stable for a long time. I don't see any sign of collapse. The system is
So, all in all, Jong-un may stand a better chance over his two other brothers
of becoming an eventual successor to Kim Jong-il. Choosing Jong-un reflects the
interests of North Korea.
But in terms of the global community, which son will be a better choice? This
was the topic of discussion among a group of journalists in Beijing recently.
When the eldest son, Kim Jong-nam, showed up in Beijing on January 27, a raft
of journalists followed him to his hotel downtown, some even staying overnight
in the lobby just to keep an eye on this important media figure. In the wee
hours, some journalists there, mostly South Korean and Japanese, engaged in an
informal discussion about the heir designation.
First of all, they excluded the possibility of Jong-nam as the heir designate.
If he were really chosen as his father’s successor, the theory went, he
wouldn't have showed up alone in a foreign country without a bodyguard. On the
other hand, they thought that in terms of personal quality, Jong-nam would be a
better choice for the world.
"He is the most internationalized among Kim Jong-il's sons. Jong-nam was
educated abroad and he travelled extensively. He speaks fluent English and
French. He will be more reform-minded when he becomes the leader. For that
matter, he may be less keen on building his personality cult and nicer to his
people as well. On the other hand, this very liberal tendency can be a threat
to the North Korean ruling structure," said a journalist who was present there.
As of today, numerous news reports and commentary based on the heir appointment
continue to emerge, citing experts on the matter. If the heir selection is
still confusing, we may get solace from the fact that even God's prophet was
In fact, in the Old Testament of the Bible, there is a similar and equally
puzzling heir selection story about how God chose a successor to King Saul. God
delegated the task to the prophet Samuel, telling him that the new king would
be found among the sons of a man named Jesse. So, Jesse brought his sons and
made them pass before Samuel one by one.
When Samuel saw the tall Eliab, the oldest son, he thought: "Surely this must
be the one." But God warned Samuel, "Do not look at his appearance or at the
height of his stature, because I have refused him." God continued: "I do not
see as man sees; for man looks at the outward appearance, but I look at the
Then, Jesse called another son, Abinadab, and made him pass before Samuel. He
was not the chosen one either. Then Jesse made son Shammah pass by. He wasn't
the one either. Jesse made seven of his sons pass before Samuel. All of them
And Samuel said to Jesse, "Are all the young men here?" Jesse said, "There
remains yet the youngest, keeping the sheep in the field." And Samuel said to
Jesse, "Bring him here."
Jesse hadn't summoned the youngest because he didn't think the youngest was
"king material". But he was wrong. When the youngest was brought in front of
Samuel, God told the prophet: "Anoint him; for this is the one!" That was how
King David was chosen.
In North Korea, Kim Jong-il is a god. Kim has three sons. Numerous prophets
outside North Korea have looked to their oracle bones, giving their human
inclination of who would be the next leader of the kingdom. Each of the three
sons has been seen as the heir, at least once.
Maybe it will be one of the three sons. Maybe, it will be a surprise. God
hasn't spoken yet.
Sunny Lee is a Seoul-born writer and journalist. He is a graduate of
Harvard University and Beijing Foreign Studies University. He can be reached at