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North Korea: Pity the son of Kim Jong Il

Analysis: Why Kim Jong Un is exactly what North Korea does not need.

portraits Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il
Portraits of North Korea's founder and former leader Kim Il-sung (left) and his son and current leader Kim Jong-il are hung at a mock North Korean-style classroom, displayed by the South Korean government at an observation post south of the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas in Paju, Sept. 21, 2010. (Lee Jae-Won/Reuters)

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In the clearest sign yet that Kim Jong Il's youngest son will succeed his father as leader of North Korea, Kim Jong Un has been promoted to military general ahead of Tuesday's Workers' Party summit in Pyongyang.

NAGANO, Japan — If, as many clues suggest, a party conference opening in North Korea Tuesday is largely about the anointment of the ailing Kim Jong Il’s third son to succeed Kim as top leader, one must feel at least a bit sorry for the young man.

Still in his mid-20s, largely untested, Kim Jong Un would have the unenviable task of trying to persuade his countrymen to celebrate the start of yet another generation of Kim family rule.

Instead, after decades of almost unmitigated economic disaster, growing numbers of North Koreans think what they need is a new start under some Korean version of Deng Xiaoping, the Chinese politician who led the country toward a market economy.

The latest huge misstep: Last December a currency redenomination confiscated much of the wealth of North Korea’s growing class of free-market traders, generating so much popular outrage that the regime reportedly felt the need not only to apologize but to make a scapegoat of one high official involved by executing him.

That incident increased already enormous pressure on the leadership to act nimbly and effectively in suppressing each incident of popular resistance — or watch the regime move further into a downward spiraling pattern leading to collapse. Resistance is likely to well up again assuming the regime, as the party’s official newspaper seemed to hint in an editorial on Sept. 18, chooses to continue Kim Jong Il’s anti-capitalist, anti-globalization, purportedly self-reliant “Juche” economic polices under third generation family rule.

“Look for more policy implementation failures and subsequent reversals that should set off huge warning bells at every intelligence agency,” advised Robert Collins, the author of a seven-phase scenario for North Korean regime collapse and the recently retired strategic planning adviser to the U.S.-South Korean military command in Seoul.

North Korea has not announced to the outside world that Kim Jong Un is his father’s choice for successor. Indeed, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter this month quoted Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao as saying Kim Jong Il had told Wen the Jong Un succession story was “a false rumor from the West.”

The 69-year-old Kim Jong Il, who is reported to have suffered a stroke in 2008, may have been playing his usual mind games designed to keep outsiders confused. Numerous reports smuggled out of the country by defector-staffed news organizations abroad say that for months in study sessions around the country the authorities have sought to build a personality cult around Jong Un, calling him the “youth captain” or (big promotion) “young general” and teaching citizens to sing a song glorifying him.