North Korea: Pity the son of Kim Jong Il

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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.

One Korean-American who visited the country in late August as a tourist said her guide, an apparently prosperous and well-connected young Pyongyang resident, had denied that Kim Jong Il had health problems.

But the guide said that when the current leader’s rule eventually ended Kim Jong Un would run in an “election” to replace the older man. Such guides are members of the Pyongyang elite, trusted by the regime to understand and convey official views only in their dealings with foreign visitors.

That guide “said Kim Jong Un will certainly be on the list of candidates,” said the visitor, who asked not to be named so as not to endanger her access to the regime, which she researches in her work.

“He said so without referring to him as Kim Jong Il’s son. I asked him who Kim Jong Un is, and he said, ‘Kim Jong Un is such a genius, much like his father, Kim Jong Il.’ He repeated the word ‘genius’ lots of times. I asked him who are some other notable political figures besides Kim Jong-un and he said he had no idea, and that there is probably none other than Kim Jong Un.”

The outside world in the absence of a recent photo doesn’t even know what Kim Jong Un looks like. Little else is known for sure about him beyond the pronunciation of his name. If you see it spelled Kim Jong Eun, that isn’t incorrect but is simply a reflection of South Korea’s way of romanizing a vowel that’s similar to that in “book,” not the vowel in “up” or “boot.”

It appears Kim Jong Un was educated partly in Switzerland. His father’s former sushi chef, a Japanese, has described him as truculent and aggressive. Perhaps those personality qualities gave the lad an advantage in competition with his two older brothers to be named dictator-in-waiting. Some reports say he and the middle brother both completed a special five-year political-military college course tailored to their status as possible future leaders.

What has not appeared to date is any evidence that the young man would turn the regime around, taking the Deng Xiaoping role of reforming and opening the economy. Deng, it should be remembered, was not related to Mao Zedong, had suffered under Mao’s rule and had to wait for Mao to die and for Mao’s radically anti-capitalist “Gang of Four” to be arrested and tried before he could proceed.

Some outsiders hold out at least mild hopes for Jang Song Taek, husband of Kim JongIl’s sister and thus Kim Jong Un’s uncle, who recently has taken very high positions with power over the military, the internal security apparatus and the party — positions from which the elder Kim may expect Jang to protect and mentor the inexperienced successor.

The good news about Jang is that he has considerable business experience, including involvement in international trading, and reputedly has had good relations with Chinese officials.

The bad news is that, with a long record of self-seeking and corruption, benefiting big time from the status quo, Jang has shown little sign of favoring policy changes dramatic enough to seriously improve the livelihoods of ordinary North Koreans. Jang thus seems no more likely than his nephew to become North Korea’s Deng.

Veteran Asia correspondent Bradley K. Martin is the author of “Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty.”