Mother Knows Best

Even by Pyongyang's bizarre standards, the military directive is a strange one. Instead of laying down new orders or repeating old ones, the 16-page internal document, circulated by the People's Army, sings the praises of a woman identified only as Omonim ("Respected Mother"), "the most faithful of the faithful, who devotes herself to our beloved supreme commander." Respected Mother is quoted as acknowledging the North's "difficult" situation and asking the country's 1 million troops if their soap ration is sufficient.

The directive's apparent triviality almost disguises its serious message. The exact meaning is a controversial topic among analysts who have studied the document, leaked from North Korea and published in the latest issue of the South Korean opinion journal Monthly Chosun. But by all accounts the basic thrust is that a power struggle is emerging in Pyongyang between Kim Jong Nam, 32, and Kim Jong Chol, 22, the sons of North Korea's dictator, Kim Jong Il. The half brothers have been on a collision course ever since Jong Nam was caught trying to enter Japan--"to go to Disneyland," he claimed--in 2001. Now their public rivalry is adding to the peninsula's jitters. Last week, as South Korea inaugurated a new president, Pyongyang marked the event by test-firing a cruise missile. The next day the senior Kim restarted a reactor at the Yongbyon nuclear complex, mothballed since 1994. Meanwhile the World Food Program and other U.N. agencies warn that a new humanitarian crisis is developing.

The risks make it all the more urgent to decode Pyongyang's signals. The directive's "beloved supreme commander" is obviously Kim Jong Il. Its language indicates that "Respected Mother" is alive, analysts say, so she couldn't be Kim senior's mother. Nor could she be Jong Nam's mother, who died in Moscow last year, intelligence sources believe. That leaves the current First Lady, former professional folk dancer (and Jong Chol's mother) Ko Young Hui. Her sudden official sanctification is viewed as a sign that Kim senior is smiling on his younger son. The older one used to be regarded as North Korea's heir apparent--but that was before the disastrous Japan junket. Sporting a diamond-studded Rolex and carrying wads of cash, he was detained along with two women and a young boy (presumably wife, nanny and son) for three days. The expulsion was deeply embarrassing to Kim senior, who happened to be welcoming a large European Union delegation at the time.

A visiting scholar heard rumors of Jong Chol's rise last summer from colleagues in Pyongyang. "I asked if anyone had ever had close contact with him, but nobody seemed to know what kind of man he is," says the traveler. 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, where he was enrolled under a false name. His supposed parents were a cleaning woman and a chauffeur at the North Korean Embassy, but people noticed that the "father" always bowed reverently to the boy when picking him up at school.

Jong Chol's low profile only emphasizes his older brother's flaws. Korea watchers say Jong Nam was a spoiled, ill-mannered child. After a brief stint at an elite Moscow boarding school, he quit, reportedly because "the toilets were too dirty." Recently he has played a leading role in efforts to develop a software industry in the North--a hopeless enterprise unless Pyongyang gets serious about opening itself to outside ideas for the first time in half a century.

Some observers predict serious trouble if the older brother is disinherited. "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." Others argue that in effect, the power struggle has already happened--and that the younger Kim won. They theorize that hard-line Stalinists in the military's top ranks have thrown their support behind Jong Chol to prevent his globe-trotting older brother from exposing North Koreans to the "pollution" of foreign contact. A third group of analysts says the whole question of succession is moot. "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 United States and the rest of the world turn their eyes [from Baghdad] to Pyongyang, the 'Great Leader' will need to worry about his own a--." Even so, Kim Jong Il has kept North Korea going until now on little more than threats and the will to survive. With Respected Mother on his side, who knows how long he'll last?

Mother Knows Best | News