North Korea Appears to Tap Leader’s Son as Enigmatic Heir

27 04 2010

By MARTIN FACKLER (The New York Times, April 24, 2010)

SUNGNAM, South Korea — The black-and-white photographs that were published last month in a North Korean newspaper appear no different from other propaganda coming from North Korea: they show the supreme leader, Kim Jong-il, touring a steel plant in a fur cap and his trademark sunglasses.

It is the pudgy but stern-faced young man next to him, dressed in a snappy Western suit and dutifully scribbling in a notebook, who has spurred intense speculation. Could this unidentified man be just a plant manager? Or could this be the first public appearance of Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader’s third son and heir apparent?

“There, see how his face is in focus and illuminated even more than Kim Jong-il himself?” said Cheong Seong-chang, a specialist on North Korean politics at the Sejong Institute. “There is a high possibility that this is Kim Jong-un.”

Little is known about the inner workings of the secretive North Korean government, not even the identity of the heir apparent. But if Mr. Cheong is right, the enigmatic photographs are the latest signs of the desperate push that the North Korean government is making to build a cult of personality around the son, who is believed to be 27, to prepare him to assume control as the current leader’s health declines.

The elder Mr. Kim, 68, appeared to suffer a stroke two years ago, and there have been recent reports that he is suffering from kidney disease. Analysts say that if Mr. Kim dies too soon, his son could be pushed aside in a scramble for power among political and military elites that would end the family’s dynastic rule and might even bring about the collapse of the impoverished totalitarian state.

While this internal struggle is going on, problems continue to mount. A ham-handed currency revaluation last fall, aimed at reasserting central control over the economy, is reported to have badly backfired, producing unrest and disaffection with the government. At the same time, the spread of cellphones and DVD players has broken the North’s self-imposed isolation, giving many of its citizens a sense for the first time of how poor and backward their country has become.

Recently, the government is said to have given mass promotions and luxury cars to officers in the nation’s powerful military, in a bid to cement their loyalty. Indeed, the sinking last month of a South Korean warship, which many South Koreans now suspect was the work of a North Korean torpedo, is widely seen in the South as a show of strength by the North aimed at winning the military’s support for the younger Mr. Kim.

Despite the breakdown of communications barriers, reliable information on the political system remains scant. Photographs like those that appeared in last month’s Rodong Sinmun, the ruling party’s newspaper, are among the limited evidence that analysts and intelligence experts must rely on as they try to understand the efforts to shore up the Kim dynasty for a third generation.

“This remains Kremlinology,” said Lee Ki-dong, a researcher on North Korea at the Institute for National Strategy, referring to the cold-war-era study of politics in the former Soviet Union. “We have to scrutinize the Rodong Sinmun as if we were looking for nuggets in a gold mine.”

Not much is known about the man who could become the next leader of the unpredictable, nuclear-armed country, even including what he looks like. The only firsthand account comes from a Japanese chef who once worked for the Kim family and knew Kim Jong-un only as a personable and precocious boy. The only known photograph of him was taken when he was 11 years old.

It is also unknown whether Kim Jong-un has any rivals. For a time, North Korea watchers regarded the leader’s eldest son, Kim Jong-nam, 39, as the most likely heir — until he was caught by Japanese authorities using a fake passport to visit Tokyo Disneyland. He now lives in Macao, giving occasional paid interviews to Japanese television.

Reports out of North Korea indicate that the government is trying to build a cult of personality around Kim Jong-un, just as it did during the last succession, when the current leader replaced his father, the North’s founder, Kim Il-sung. But while Kim Jong-il is believed to have had two decades as heir before assuming power after his father’s death in 1994, his son is being rolled out much faster.

Moreover, some experts say, the average North Korean is growing worldly and aware of life outside the country’s borders, making it increasingly unlikely that the government’s often bizarre propaganda efforts will succeed.

On Monday, the Daily NK, a Web site that specializes in information on North Korea, said it had obtained an internal propaganda document that called Kim Jong-un the Youth Captain and quoted his father (who has his own title, Dear Leader) praising his loyalty and good works. The documents also extolled the son for such achievements as managing a fireworks display last year in Pyongyang, the capital, and becoming a proficient driver of military vehicles, the Daily NK reported.

“He is a genius of geniuses,” the document says. “He has been endowed by nature with special abilities. There is nobody on the planet who can defeat him in terms of faith, will and courage.”

Mr. Cheong, the analyst, said that members of local North Korean work units and government employees had been taught a new song titled “Footsteps,” which lauds Kim Jong-un’s fitness to follow his father as leader.

Kim Jong-il has been rushing to prepare the ground for his son in other ways, analysts say. They said that wiretaps of North Korean phones by the South’s intelligence agency revealed that the younger Mr. Kim was appointed to a top post in the ruling party’s internal security apparatus last year and that he now worked in the same building as his father.

The analysts have offered many predictions about what may happen when the current leader does die. One is that his brother-in-law, Jang Song-taek, 64, widely seen as the second most powerful member of the inner circle, could serve as a regent until the younger Mr. Kim is ready to rule — or simply hold onto power for himself.

“The signs are that the elite do not take Kim Jong-un seriously,” said Kim Yeon-su, a professor of North Korean studies at the National Defense University in Seoul. “This is the final stage of the Kim family dictatorship.”

“The photo is not of Kim Jong-un,” a Unification Ministry official said, speaking to reporters on the condition of anonymity. Another government official, who also asked not to be named, said the photo showed Kim Kwang-nam, chief engineer at the Kim Chaek Iron and Steel Complex in a northern province.

See more photos of suspected Kim Jong-un in

‘N.Korean Officer’ Says North Sank the Cheonan

20 04 2010

The Chosun Ilbo, 20 April, 2010

A North Korean Army officer has testified that the North Korean military attacked the South Korean Navy corvette Cheonan before it sank in the West Sea on March 26, the head of a South Korean activist group claimed Monday. Choi Sung-yong of the Family Assembly Abducted to North Korea said, “It seems that the Cheonan was sunk in a premeditated North Korean operation.”

Choi published a transcript of a telephone conversation with what he says is a senior North Korean Army officer. According to the transcript, the officer says, “Thirteen commandos who left from Cape Bipagot sank the Cheonan. Many people as well as military officers already know who attacked the ship.”

The officer claims the motive was revenge. “After the North lost the sea skirmish in November last year, Kim Jong-il gave an order to take revenge. He gave the order when he visited the naval fleet command in Nampo.”

The officer according to the transcript claims Gens. Kim Yong-chol and U Dong-chuk traveled between Pyongyang and Nampo frequently to visit the fleet command to work out an operational plan. “Navy Commander Jong Myong-do stayed in Nampo until the mission was accomplished,” he added.

Kim Yong-chol, the director of the Reconnaissance Bureau in charge of espionage operations against the South, has been consistently fingered by South Korean intelligence agents as the man behind the attack.

U Dong-chuk, the senior deputy chief of the State Security Department and a member of the National Defense Commission, and Navy Commander Jong Myong-do were promoted to full generals on Kim Il-sung’s 98th birthday last Thursday. They were two of the four lieutenant generals who were promoted the same day.

Their promotions stoked suspicions here since U was promoted to a full general only a year after he was promoted to lieutenant general. Jong was promoted unexpectedly after his position became uncertain following North Korea’s ignoble defeat in the sea skirmish last year.

“Some of the 13 commandos who left Cape Bipagot before they sank the Cheonan are acquaintances of mine,” the alleged officer claims according to the transcript. “It seems it was such an important mission that a semi-submersible which was made originally for a crew of three was remodeled for the mission.”

He claims the Cheonan’s sinking lifted soldiers’ morale and the 13 commandos “are being treated as heroes.”

“They apparently spent a lot of time practicing camouflage by sneaking around fleet of North Korean and Chinese fishing boats operating near Baeknyeong Island,” the officer says. “It seems likely that a bigger event will occur in the future given that they are operating also in the East Sea, camouflaging themselves there.”

Commenting on North Korean broadcasts’ denial of the North’s involvement, the transcript has him saying, “It’s natural for them to deny involvement, isn’t it? We’re tired since we’ve always been on emergency alert.”

Military Increasingly Convinced of N.Korean Sub Attack

Why the Sunshine Policy Made Sense

6 04 2010

By James E. Hoare (

At a recent private meeting in London, a former senior United Nations’ official, drawing on experience relating to a wide range of countries, said that transforming a “failing” or “fragile” state was not something that could be done overnight. Those involved needed to think in terms of ten to twenty years rather than weeks or months. Regardless of whether or not one accepts the idea of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK or North Korea) as a failed or even fragile state—and the term is often used in some quarters—the idea that one is in for the long haul in bringing about major modifications in behavior and attitude is certainly a good one to have in mind when dealing with the DRPK. It was such an approach that marked the Republic of Korea’s policy towards the North under former Presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun.

Since the Lee Myung-bak government took office in the Republic of Korea (ROK or South Korea) in 2008, it is fashionable to dismiss the policies followed by his predecessors as an expensive failure. Sneers about “ATM diplomacy,” innuendo about Kim Dae-jung’s motives, and references to his successor Roh Moo-hyun’s naivety, are the commonplace of South Korean academic and press comment, and are heard much further afield. “Sunshine” or engagement have become terms of mockery. The Lee government has adopted a more aggressive policy towards North Korea. It has not refused assistance outright, but has couched its offers in such a way that rejection is inevitable—the most recent example is the “grand bargain” proposed in 2009 in which the DPRK must first give up its nuclear program to receive security guarantees and aid. This is then played back as evidence that the North is incorrigible and not deserving of assistance.

The Lee government’s approach is based on an incorrect assessment both of the Sunshine Policy and what went before it. “Sunshine” or “engagement” was not something that sprang from Kim Dae-jung’s fertile brain, though he certainly can be credited with refining and developing the idea. The policies pursued by Kim and Roh lay firmly within a tradition that goes back to President Park Chung Hee in the early 1970s and that was followed by all his successors to a greater or lesser degree. However, it was never easy to engage the North and it did not take much to divert earlier presidents from such a policy. Frustrated or annoyed, they eventually gave up the effort…

[…] No doubt engagement was expensive and sometimes the means used to bring it about were shady, but it was producing benefits. The South, and to some extent the rest of the world, now has a far better understanding of how North Korea works then it did before engagement began. Within the North, a large number of people have come to see their southern compatriots in a less hostile light and have some, even if limited, understanding of the economic and social structures of South Korea. Perhaps some of the assistance provided was diverted away from its original purpose, but enough rice and fertilizer bags reached areas far away from Pyongyang and enough people were willing to ask questions about the South to show that the impact of engagement extended beyond a small circle of ruling elite. Slowly, the policy was creating a group of people who could see benefits in remaining on good terms with South Korea and who had wider links with the outside world. Engagement has worked in other countries, most noticeably China, and I believe that it was beginning to work in North Korea. There was never going to be a speedy change in attitudes built up over sixty years, but stopping the process after ten was not a wise decision.

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*James E. Hoare was Britain’s Chargé d’Affaires to the DPRK from 2001-2002 and opened the British Embassy in Pyongyang.