SEOUL - The face and physique don't exactly bode well for the future of North
Korea's 24 million people - or for the region.
Here is a kid who's got to have the puffiest cheeks in his father's fiefdom. He
appears to have an incipient double chin and he's showing signs of a pot belly,
which might not be a good image in a country in which many are starving and
diseased and most are underfed.
Probably most disturbing about Kim Jong-eun, though, is the set of his mouth
and hands: truculent, impassive, cold. It takes only a small stretch of the
imagination to see him ordering hangings and shootings, mysterious "car
accidents" and, certainly, imprisonment and torture, just as his father, Dear
Jong-il, has been doing for years.
Now that the kid has finally come out of the closet, in living color
portraiture for the first time before his own people and the world, we can be
pretty sure of two things: North Korean policy is not going to change, at least
for the better; and he is for now a prisoner of the generals and politburo
members sitting beside and in front of him in the official first photo released
by North Korea.
That's obvious from his position between two generals - or rather a general and
a vice marshal. The vice marshal, Ri Yong-ho, is to his left, between him and
his father, at the end of the first row of the group photo of the new line-up
of politburo members.
Technically, the kid should be dressed up just like the generals and vice
marshals. Isn't he also a general, newly designated by his father, on the eve
of Tuesday's Workers' Party conference? In fact, he and Ri, at 68 at least 40
years older than he, are not only on the top rung of the armed forces but vice
chairmen of the newly formed military commission of the party. They got those
posts at the conference at which the politburo was named - further evidence, if
any was needed, of the predominance of the armed forces and the fervent belief
in "songun", the "military first" policy propounded by Kim Jong-il.
Together, these two, the marshal and the kid, should be working out plans and
policies to drum up the fighting spirit of North Korea's 1.1 million troops,
four million reservists and millions more who are either veterans or students
waiting for the call to arms. There are, however, a few critical differences
other than the age gap. General Ri, a graduate of the North's military academy,
has dedicated a significant portion of his long career to commanding the army's
training schools, which have to be among the world's toughest. These are
institutions in which slaps and beatings and worse are the norm, and no one's
going to raise an outcry if some poor recruit never gets up again.
The kid went to Kim Il-sung University, named for his grandfather, the
long-ruling founder of the Kim dynasty, but he never actually had to go to
class. Rather, he was home-schooled, tutored in one of his father's residences.
Nor is it likely he ever had to go on a 32-kilometer run or do 100 push-ups,
much less fire a weapon, though he must have had some sports while attending an
elite private school near Berne, Switzerland. He's known to love basketball, as
both a fan of the National Basketball Association and a pickup player in games
in which his older brother, Kim Jong-chul, the one deemed too "feminine" by
their father and passed over as heir to the throne, played on the opposing
Clearly, though, the kid has a uniform that's actually far more distinctive
than those of his comrade generals with their medals and frying-pan hats. He's
garbed in a simple Mao Zedong suit, a dark blue, almost black outfit that looks
a little like the beige numbers that his father favors. The first photo, and
the video that North Korea released a few hours later, provide not just clues
to character and policy - they're fashion statements too. From now on, the
kid's got to show up in some variation of the Mao outfit, even if civilian
officials are all wearing dark gray suits and the other generals are decked out
in uniforms blazing with medals and ribbons.
One message of the picture, though, is that Kim Jong-eun is not quite there
yet. He's a dictator in training. He's not even on the politburo. Rather, his
father, the party general secretary, placed him one rung below, on the party's
central committee. He's surrounded by his superiors, politburo members. That
provides some incentive for him to prove he's worthy of rising to their level,
some day bossing them around but not quite yet.
These stolid party types, most if not all of them well known for years, are not
likely to let the kid get away with much. They've got to nurture and protect
him, to make him feel he's got some idea and calling the shots, whereas his
father and the aging crowd around him remain at the center of power.
Marshal Ri's job is to lead the kid around, show him how you control one of the
world's biggest military establishments. Above all, he and his colleagues need
to fill him in on those weapons of mass destruction, not just nuclear warheads
but the chemical and biological ones that everyone forgets about while trying
to get the North to return to talks about its nukes. It wouldn't do to have the
kid take charge of the whole show and start pressing the wrong buttons.
Actually, the posts of vice chairmen of the party's military commission are
relatively meaningless. The real center of power is the National Defense
Commission, chaired, naturally, by the father. In other words, the party
military commission is a training school for the real thing, and Marshal Ri is
the teacher and the kid the lone student.
Kim Jong-eun has some other teachers as well. Right down the front row from him
in the picture is a slim and trim little lady in a dark olive-drab uniform, no
medals or insignia but plenty of rank. She's Aunt Kyong-hui, Kim Jong-il's
sister, 64, four years younger than the Dear Leader, named a general along with
her nephew. Auntie may not command any troops, but she does command her
husband, Jang Song-thaek, Kim Jong-il's brother-in-law, and that's what counts.
If Jang's going to rule as a kind of regent after Kim Jong-il goes, he'll have
to run whatever he does by General Kim Kyong-hui, also named to the politburo.
She's got the rank, in the armed forces and the party, though he does exercise
plenty of power in his own right as a vice chairman of the National Defense
Like good teachers, Kim Jong-eun's elders and betters in the party and the army
will want to make sure he's in on the decision-making process. They're believed
to have spread the word, filtered through contacts to South Korea, that he was
responsible for conceiving the "heroic" attack in March on the South Korean
corvette the Cheonan, sinking it in minutes with a loss of 46 lives.
Not so, in the view of knowledgeable analysts. The attack was engineered by a
few top generals, also named to the party's military commission. The kid is
getting the credit, though, all part of the build-up for the day when he's
ordering everyone around regardless of rank and experience, when he's broken
the bonds of paternal power, and he's able to plot such mayhem on his own.