The government of North Korea is a giant criminal syndicate, or so it is generally believed. The rulers of the Hermit Kingdom allegedly profit from selling opium and running a black market in weapons technology, pushing missiles and nuclear know-how on the likes of Syria and Pakistan. It has been widely reported that the North Koreans make additional ill-gotten gains from counterfeiting passports and currency. Some of this may be exaggerated. It could be, for instance, that North Korea merely peddles bogus $100 bills that are made in China. But there is no doubt that control of the government in Pyongyang is a rich, if tainted, prize. While roughly a third of the population is malnourished, the rulers can divvy up a $40 billion economy that draws on North Korea's plentiful natural resources, including gold. The question is, who gets the gold?
Succession is always a tricky subject in totalitarian states. In the case of North Korea, a bizarre world shrouded in secrecy, it is a source of urgent fascination for the country's neighbors and for the United States, especially since the prize includes control over nuclear weapons and, possibly, the eventual capacity to launch them on Tokyo—or Hawaii.
The current ruler, Kim Jong Il, seems to be tottering. He reportedly suffered a stroke a year ago, and may be ill with cancer as well. At 68, he rarely appears in public, and when he does he looks frail and dazed. Because nothing is certain about North Korea, the true state of his health is still debated in the intelligence community, with some officials, who requested anonymity when discussing sensitive in-formation, arguing that Kim is not as ill as advertised. Nonetheless, he does seem to be worried about passing power to one of his three sons.
None of them seems remotely ready for the job. They do not appear to be self-indulgent sadists, like Saddam Hussein's evil progeny, Uday and Qusay. They've apparently inherited their father's more benign, if eccentric, tastes for things Western. Kim, also known as the Dear Leader, has boasted to guests that he owns 20,000 movies, and he once instructed his ambassador to the United Nations to obtain a copy of Sudden Death, starring Jean-Claude Van Damme, who is said to be the Dear Leader's film hero. The North Korean ruler's sons variously worship Armani, NBA stars, Eric Clapton, and Disneyland. The third son, Kim Jong Un, is the most mysterious. That may be for his protection, as he seems to be the heir apparent. But his ability to hold on to power in a renegade dictatorship widely regarded as an international pariah is very uncertain. NEWSWEEK recently tracked the paths of Kim Jong Il's three sons. Their stories might seem comical if the stakes were not so large.
All three are mindful of their lineage, which is the font of all power in North Korea. The patriarch, the "Great Leader" Kim Il Sung, earned his legitimacy by fighting imperialists—first the Japanese, then the Americans in the Korean War. His son the Dear Leader, Kim Jong Il, learned how to outmaneuver his rivals during a decades-long apprenticeship to power, at one point dispatching an ambitious half brother, Pyong Il, to be ambassador to Finland. In 1998, four years after his father's death, Kim strengthened his hold by declaring a songun, or "military first," policy, and sprinkling his generals with Rolexes and luxury cars, including Lexuses and BMWs.
At least one of the Dear Leader's sons got his initial training in a posh Swiss school. In the fall of 1992, two boys, both looking a bit old for the fourth grade, were delivered by limousine at the International School of Berne (ISB), a few minutes away from the North Korean Embassy. (The Swiss are always discreet: an administrator for the ISB, declining to be identified, said the school had no idea the sons were anything more than the sons of North Korean diplomats. "We didn't ask a lot of questions," he said.) The two boys participated in the Christmas pageant (not speaking English, they held up signs) and by January had shed their blue polyester tracksuits for blue jeans.
One of the two boys was Kim Jong Il's second son, Kim Jong Chol. The other, who looked especially old for his grade, was his bodyguard. Jong Chol was a basketball fanatic who loved the Chicago Bulls. But Jong Chol was not much of a player—a schoolmate recalled that he tended to jump to the side, not up, while making a shot—and it was the bodyguard who made the ISB school team. Jong Chol, who went by the cover name Pak Chol, appears to have been a reserved, gentle boy. Bits of his poetry were contained in a collection of student work. One, written when he was a sixth or seventh grader in the mid-'90s, and provided to NEWSWEEK by someone connected to the school, is called "My Ideal World." It begins: "If I had my ideal world I would not allow weapons and atom bombs anymore. I would destroy all terrorists with the Hollywood star Jean-Claude Van Damme. I would make people stop taking drugs…" He wrote a somewhat chilling short story called "My Father Was a Ghost," in which his father haunts him by pretending to be a spirit.
By some accounts, his father regarded him as too soft to take power.
It was once thought that the eldest son, Kim Jong Nam, was first in line. But in 2001, Jong Nam was detained in Tokyo for using a fake Dominican passport. He was trying to visit Tokyo Disneyland. Overweight and suspected of being diabetic, Jong Nam has since told reporters that he has no interest in politics and seems more concerned about acquiring, or at least wearing, bling. He has been seen in Macau sporting Armani caps, and Bur-berry and Polo Ralph Lauren shirts and sunglasses.
A lot less is known about the third son, Kim Jong Un. U.S. government sources, who did not want to be quoted on intelligence matters, believe that he was also educated in Switzerland at a young age, though just where and when is unclear. The public source who has been most cited is Kim Jong Il's former sushi chef, Kenji Fujimoto, who escaped to Japan in 2001 and has been describing palace life in the Hermit Kingdom ever since. According to Fujimoto's account, the father favored his youngest son because he was mentally tougher and more closely resembled the father than the second son. "Jong Chol is impossible because he is too feminine," Kim Jong Il once told his cadres, according to Fujimoto. "But Jong Un is exactly like me." Fujimoto told a Seoul daily that Kim Jong Il raised Jong Un to have "guts." When he was 7, the son was allowed to drive a Mercedes 600 with adjusted seat heights. He was also allowed to drink alcohol and dressed in a military uniform from an early age. At 12, after his younger sister had the temerity to call him "brother," he demanded that she call him "General Comrade." He was concerned for his people, after a fashion. When he turned 18 he supposedly said, "I get to ride Jet Ski and enjoy watersports, Rollerblading, and horse riding. But what are ordinary people doing?"
But Fujimoto may be unreliable. He demands and receives money for press interviews, and some of the information he has provided doesn't fully add up. (He turned down an interview when NEWSWEEK refused to pay him.) NEWSWEEK has discovered that a purported photo of Jong Un as a schoolboy—which Fujimoto distributed, saying that he had received it directly from Jong Un when he was an adult—is almost surely a photo of a different boy. The photo appears in a yearbook from the International School of Berne, identifying a South Korean child of another name. It's possible that Jong Un was using a South Korean cover story to hide his true identity. But schoolmates and a teacher of the child told NEWSWEEK they don't believe it. Moreover, the child did not have any apparent chauffeur or bodyguard, as son No. 2 did, and at least some North Korea specialists think it unlikely that one of the Dear Leader's sons would pose as a South Korean. (Another theory, reported in Japan and last week in The Washington Post, has it that Jong Un might have attended a German-speaking state school in Köniz, Switzerland. But that account has holes, too. For instance, the child thought to be Jong Un rode to school on a bike without attendants in a workaday section of Berne much farther from the North Korean Embassy than the international school attended by his less-favored brother.)
Both Jong Un and his older brother Jong Chol later attended Pyongyang's Kim Il Sung Military University. The curriculum there would have been designed to erase any liberal ideas they might have picked up in Switzerland, and to give both kids a hard course in the isolated, paranoid politics of their homeland.
There appears to be a consensus, at least, among intelligence agencies in the United States and South Korea that Jong Un, still only 26, is being groomed to assume power. Kim loyalists have been instructed to address him as "Brilliant Comrade," according to a Western intelligence official who would not be identified discussing sensitive information. Even his older brother Jong Nam "thinks it is true" that Jong Un has been picked by their father. "I have to follow once my father decides," he told Japan's TV Asahi. According to Open North Korean News, a Seoul-based media organization, for the past month North Korean soldiers have been taught about the third son's "revolutionary achievements." The soldiers sing songs composed "at the direction" of Jong Un, who is touted as "the young general fully realizing the ideas and leadership of Gen. Kim Jong Il." Jong Un is held up as a genius in the arts and philosophy, and is also credited with guiding the North Korean soccer team to a 2010 World Cup berth—the first time North Korea has qualified for the Cup tournament since 1966.
The Dear Leader may not be quite on his deathbed, but he has become "more angry and impatient," according to Nam Sung Wook, director of the Institute for National Security Strategy, a government think tank in Seoul. Kim rushed a nuclear test in May and directed harsh criticism toward Moscow and Beijing after those capitals, normally friendly, denounced the test. Some sources in Seoul even linked a recent cyberattack on South Korea and the United States to the Dear Leader's new round of adventurism.
He would be leaving his country surrounded by enemies. When she met with him in 2000, then–U.S. diplomat Wendy Sherman found Kim to be "a very intelligent man who's self-confident and eloquent. He was knowledgeable and well prepared." It's hard to imagine that Jong Un would be so confident. In a Confucian society that respects age and wisdom, it may be that a regent would govern until Jong Un was ready. The likeliest candidate for that job is Chang Song Taek, who was once purged for corruption—and perhaps because he had grown too close to son No. 1—but has been rehabilitated and now controls much of North Korea's gold trade.
As long as the Dear Leader is alive, his generals will salute their new "Brilliant Comrade." Once he is gone, however, there may be a brutal scramble for the gold—and the nukes.
With reporting from Tracy McNicoll, Suzanne Smalley and Daniel Stone