Kim's coming out is prime-time drama
By Donald Kirk
WASHINGTON - The conference of the Korean Workers' Party in Pyongyang is
beginning to look like a non-event and its postponement is raising searching
questions as to what's going on inside the Hermit Kingdom.
There's speculation, fueled by a report on YTN, the South Korean cable news
network, that Dear Leader Kim Jong-il was stricken during his visit to
northeastern China late last month and is not able to host what was to have
been a coming-out party for third son Kim Jong-eun. Either that or Jong-eun was
a most reluctant debutante, and his father about the world's most possessive,
Just as the Western media were overflowing with reports of the significance of
the conference, the first gathering of delegates of
the Workers' Party since 1966, a curtain of secrecy has descended over news
from North Korea. Look for signs of Kim Jong-eun, in word or picture, and you
will simply not find them in the North Korean capital.
Equally surprising, instead of spreading the word about the conference, North
Korea has proposed another round of three-day reunions of families divided by
the Korean War. The reunions, if held, would be the first in a year - and the
second in three years when regular reunions sputtered to a halt amid worsening
Now, while South Korea still demands an apology from North Korea for sinking
the South Korean navy corvette the Cheonan in March, North Korea is off
on a peace offensive. The North steadfastly denies anything to do with the Cheonan
episode but is calling for returning to six-party talks on its nuclear weapons
that it's boycotted since December 2008.
As for Kim Jong-il, Pyongyang's Korean Central News Agency reported that he had
visited a coal mine "to acquaint himself in detail with technology and
production". There's no hint, though, of whether he visited the mine before or
after his China visit, in which he met President Hu Jintao and appealed for aid
to fight flooding that has again ravaged the countryside.
The secrecy is so tight that it's reasonable to ask if the party conference is
going to happen and, if so, if Kim Jong-eun will show up. Neither his name nor
his picture have ever appeared in the North Korean media, and the one or two
photographs that were reported to be of him in the Japanese media were of
Might the conference come and go with no definitive word about Kim Jong-eun?
The answer is "yes", but that omission does not mean the conflab, if held,
would not have everything to do with his place as successor to the throne held
by Kim Jong-il since the death of his father, long-ruling Great Leader Kim
Il-sung, in July 1994.
The best guess is that Kim Jong-il wants to bolster support for Kim Jong-eun
among party bureaucrats who might question his credentials. What, after all,
has the kid, believed to be 27 years old, done to qualify him to take over from
his ailing father, who had a stroke in August 2008, suffers from high blood
pressure and diabetes and is on dialysis three times a week?
He's reportedly gotten secondary posts - "inspector" is the term sometimes used
- for the National Defense Commission, of which his father is chairman, and for
the party, of which his father is general secretary. The real power resides in
the defense commission, which necessarily dominates the armed forces through
which Kim Jong-il exercises his policy of songun (''military first''), a
term that in recent years has eclipsed juche (''self-reliance'') as the
country's core credo.
It's possible that one way for Kim Jong-eun to show his stuff on a broader
scale would be to serve as one of the secretaries of the Workers' Party. The
mere mention of his name in a new list of secretaries would confirm his
ascendancy as next in line to power whenever his father leaves the scene.
With his acute sense of political survival, however, Kim Jong-il may have other
ideas. It's possible Kim Jong-eun will get the post but that it won't be
announced, and it's equally possible he won't actually get a title befitting
his role as next in line to power.
Reluctance to ruffle sensitivities among party faithful is not going to inhibit
the propaganda buildup needed to make the case for succession.
North Koreans for a year now have been humming and singing ''Footsteps'', a
song whose title indicates that someone is getting ready to follow in the
footsteps of their Dear Leader. There are reports that certain North Koreans
are referring to him as ''commander'', and it's even rumored, via surreptitious
cell phone contact to South Koreans, that pins with his likeness are ready for
distribution - to go along with the Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-sung pins that all
North Koreans wear.
The word is also getting out that Kim Jong-eun is a pretty tough guy. Could he
personally have encouraged, and maybe even ordered, the attack on the Cheonan
in which 46 young sailors died? It doesn't hurt Kim Jong-eun's image for word
to spread that he's as tough as any of the military people whom his father is
accustomed to ordering around and that, when it comes to dealing with the
country's main enemies, the US and South Korea, he appreciates the virtues of
Kim Jong-eun will need all the build-up he can get. He's said to have had to go
through North Korea's military academy, but there's no clue as to the rigor of
the training he received. Nor can he claim anything remotely like the combat
experience of senior officers who survived the Korean War in the early 1950s.
As far as anyone knows, Kim Jong-eun's life was fairly genteel. He did go to an
elite private school in Switzerland, where he somehow became a fan of
professional American basketball. The only photograph that's confirmed to be of
him shows a smiling boy of 12 amid classmates at school.
Not that the paparazzi haven't been after him. A horde of Japanese and South
Korean reporters and photographers dogged the caravan of limos and armored cars
and chase vehicles that accompanied Kim Jong-il on his five-day trip earlier
this month to northeastern China.
No one seems to doubt that Kim Jong-eun was along for the ride and may have
been with his father during the meeting with Hu Jintao, who flew to Changchun
to see Kim Jong-il for the second time in six months.
If there is any reason to question this speculation, however, it is that none
of the paparazzi, with their fancy long-lens cameras shooting non-stop images
of every visible moment of the mission, caught a trace of Kim Jong-eun's
presence. Nor did his name appear on any guest list. The Chinese, moreover,
have refused to confirm whether he was there or not.
Clearly, at his father's behest, Kim Jong-eun is keeping a very low profile.
The suspicion is that too many people are gunning for him. One potential
rivalry is between the kid and his father's brother-in-law, Jang Song-thaek,
who's a vice chairman of the National Defense Commission. Jang is believed by
some to be ready to operate as a regent after Kim Jong-il passes away.
Kim Jong-eun, however, may resent Jang's power. To get where he's presumed to
be, he had to beat out two other possible claimants.
The first is his older brother, who got nailed by Japanese customs officials
entering Japan on a fake Dominican passport on his way to taking his children
to Tokyo Disneyland - not a good place for a true communist to want to go. The
second claimant would be number two brother, reportedly deemed ''too
effeminate'' for the job.
Now, perhaps, Kim Jong-eun may want to get rid of Jang, who owes his position
to his wife, Kim Jong-il's younger sister. Jong-eun may form his own alliances
with military officers chafing under Jang's influence.
Open Radio for North Korea, which broadcasts from Seoul to North Korea two
hours every day, features a long-running serial on Kim Jong-eun versus Jang
Song-thaek. Kim Jong-eun's appearance at the conference, however brief, would
be prime-time drama above and below the line that still divides the two Koreas
six decades after the Korean War.