Heirs To The Kingdom

For the experts who ponder North Korea's future, reading tea leaves is part of the job description. But soap bubbles? Suds were among the clues contained in a cryptic, 16-page internal military document leaked from North Korea and published in February in the South. In it, a beatific woman described only as Omonim--or "Respected Mother"--displays boundless compassion for Pyongyang's massive Army. She acknowledges her country's "difficult" situation and asks soldiers if their soap ration is sufficient. The document calls her "the most faithful of the faithful, who devotes herself to our beloved supreme commander," meaning North Korea's reclusive "Great Leader," Kim Jong Il.

The subtext, in case you missed it, is a simmering North Korean power struggle. That's clear when the missive is decoded: Omonim, analysts agree, must be Kim's own wife. He's had two or three--depending on how one counts--but from the context Respected Mother is alive and at his side today. Thus, she isn't the woman who bore the Great Leader's eldest son, an actress believed to have died in exile in Moscow last year. Conclusion: Kim has elevated his current paramour, the former folk dancer Ko Young Hui, to Respected Mother status in an effort to prepare their 22-year-old son, Jong Chol, to inherit the world's last Stalinist dictatorship.

The Kim brothers have been on a collision course since the elder, Jong Nam, was detained while attempting to enter Japan ("to go to Disneyland," he told immigration officials) in 2001. Their sibling rivalry, now public after months of whispering, adds a caustic new variable to the unfolding nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsula. Last week Pyongyang tested a shore-launched cruise missile to mark the inauguration of South Korea's president. One day later the North restarted a nuclear reactor at Yongbyon, a complex mothballed in 1994. "This is not the time to be worrying about which son should take over," says Katsumi Sato, director of the Modern Korea Institute in Tokyo. "Once the U.S. and the rest of the world turn their eyes [from Iraq] to Pyongyang, the Great Leader will need to worry about his own a--."

The brewing feud illustrates a fundamental truth about North Korea: behind its grotesque communist veneer, the country --remains gripped by a quasi-religious personality cult that is, above all, Confucian. Built by founding patriarch Kim Il Sung, a protege of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, it allowed him to hand power to his son, Jong Il, in 1994 in the communist bloc's first and only hereditary succession. As the elder son today, Jong Nam has a claim to the throne even if his father disapproves. "For the last 10 years many party and military officials have supported him as heir apparent," says a South Korean diplomat in Tokyo. "If the father suddenly chooses the second son, there will be a power struggle and possibly a coup."

Pyongyang watchers have worked hard to piece together what little is known about the two rivals. Jong Nam, 32, was a spoiled, ill-mannered boy whose stint at an elite Moscow boarding school was cut short reportedly because "the toilets were too dirty." He then spent two years at an international school in Geneva, attended Kim Il Sung University in Pyongyang and later took a high post inside the Korean People's Army--where, presumably, he cemented ties with top generals. He may already be nursing a grudge: he is said to blame his father for his late mother's depression, for which she sought treatment in Moscow.

Jong Nam was once favored to replace his father, who turned 61 on Feb. 16. His disastrous Japan junket may have killed that dream, however. Caught trying to enter the country using a Dominican passport, he was detained along with two women and a young boy (presumably wife, nanny and son), then held for three days before release. The paunchy dictator-in-wait-ing sported a diamond-studded Rolex and carried wads of cash. His expulsion, which came as his father hosted a large European Union delegation, was deeply embarrassing to Pyongyang.

One Japan-based scholar who travels to the North Korean capital picked up rumors last summer of the rise of the younger son, Jong Chol. "I asked if anyone had ever had close contact with him, but nobody seemed to know what kind of man he is," the visitor says. In fact, only one picture of the second son has ever been published outside North Korea. Taken in 1994, it shows a lanky 13-year-old walking with classmates at the International School of Berne in Switzerland. Enrolling their "son" under a false name, the boy's ostensible parents were a cleaning lady and a chauffeur at the North Korean Embassy. His supposed father bowed reverently when he picked him up every day after school.

The Respected Mother directive "represents a bold step to make Jong Chol the successor," argues the Monthly Chosun, which recently obtained the document and published it in its current issue. Analysts are now busy debating the potential fallout. One theory: the power struggle is over. Another holds that the military, controlled by stalwarts opposed to opening the country, has endorsed Jong Chol to block his globe-trotting brother, who they believe has been "polluted" by outside ideas. "Kim Jong Nam has support from Western-oriented reformers," says Jang Yong Hoon, a Pyongyang expert at the Yonhap News Agency in Seoul, whereas his younger brother represents communist "fundamentalists." Such a hard-line ideological stance may also explain why, according to intelligence sources, Jong Chol is said to have taken a post in the government's Information and Instruction Department, the party's propaganda arm.

Of course, decoding the Hermit Kingdom's internal power struggles comes close to guesswork. But history suggests that the succession question could easily turn volatile. Six hundred years ago, Gen. Yi Song-gye, founder of the Choson dynasty, made the mistake of installing his second wife's son on the throne when he retired. That enraged his first wife's fifth son, Yi Pang-won, who mobilized troops and slaughtered his half brothers. If North Korea's newest sibling rivalry is anywhere on par with that struggle, then regime change--of a sort--may be in the cards after all.

Heirs To The Kingdom | News