The Odds May 2005

After Kim Jong Il

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When Kim Il Sung, the "president-for-life" of North Korea, turned sixty-two, in 1974, he decided that his son Kim Jong Il would succeed him. Kim Jong Il, who indeed took over when his father died, twenty years later, turned sixty-three in February. The North Korean media have recently been quoting words reportedly spoken by Kim Il Sung: if he himself could not carry out "the final victory of the Korean revolution," then his son would; and if his son couldn't, then his grandson would. Just weeks before his birthday Kim Jong Il announced to North Korea that he would "uphold Father Leader's instructions"—and so it is widely believed that the "Dear Leader" will soon name his own successor. Needless to say, Kim Jong Il's choice of who will complete the revolution is an important one, for North Koreans and for the world. Here are the candidates most likely to continue the Kim dynasty.

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KIM JONG CHOL: The middle son (born 1981) of Kim Jong Il. His mother was the popular North Korean dancer Ko Yong Hui.

Why he might be the next Dear Leader: Jong Chol's mother, who died last year, seems to have been the subject of a glorification campaign by the state, which referred to her in recent years as "respected mother," "great woman," and "loyal subject to the Dear Leader." A similar campaign glorified Kim Jong Il's mother when he prepared to succeed his father. Ko Yong Hui was rumored to have lobbied vigorously in behalf of her son, using her unusually strong influence on Kim Jong Il to secure a place for Jong Chol in the country's leadership and to banish Kim Jong Il's own brother-in-law—who had been considered a possible replacement for the Dear Leader—from Pyongyang. (She also reportedly got Kim Jong Il to give up drinking.)

Why he might not be: Kim Jong Il may not like his second son much: the dictator, according to his former sushi chef, who worked for him for more than a decade and has written two books about the experience, has called Jong Chol effeminate and said that he is "no good" because he is "too much like a girl."

Verdict: Front-runner. In late 2003 someone referred to as Paek Se Bong—which can be interpreted as "the New Peak of Mount Paektu"—was named to Kim Jong Il's exclusive cabinet, and though there are no published photos of the "New Peak," some South Korean analysts speculate that it is Jong Chol. Mount Paektu is a sacred mountain in Korean mythology, and is known as Kim Jong Il's birthplace. Already one peak of the mountain has been named for Kim Jong Il, and so if Jong Chol is indeed the "New Peak," the moniker could mark him as next in line for the dictatorship. (Another point in Jong Chol's favor is that when Kim Jong Il was rising through the political ranks, he, too, was known by a secret code name: "the Party Center.")

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KIM JONG NAM: The oldest son (born 1971) of Kim Jong Il. His mother was the actress Song Hye Rim.

Why he might be the next Dear Leader: Jong Nam has held several key leadership positions in North Korea's secret police, army, and national political party, and he is thought to have brokered secret arms deals. In his youth he was the favorite of his father, who appreciated his love of the military. When Jong Nam turned twenty-four, his father gave him a soldier's uniform with the badges of a general on it. Ever since then he has been known in the People's Republic as "Comrade General." North Korean state television reported in January that his army unit assisted peasant farmers in the north by preparing "good-quality manure."

Why he might not be: Jong Nam's maternal relatives have a bad habit of defecting. Though his mother never did, his aunt and cousins defected. And Jong Nam has had his own trouble with borders: In 2001 he was deported from Japan for carrying a false passport from the Dominican Republic. He claimed he was going to Tokyo Disneyland; South Korean media reported rumors that he was in the country to arrange arms deals. Many analysts suspect he has fallen out of his father's favor after this embarrassing incident. Some South Korean media sources have reported that Jong Nam's two half brothers tried to have him assassinated while he was visiting Austria last year. And in 1997 a cousin was murdered in Seoul by a North Korean death squad after publishing a tell-all about the Kim dynasty.

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Terrence Henry

Terrence Henry is a freelance writer living in Austin, Texas. More

Terrence Henry is a freelance writer living in Austin, Texas. In January 2009, he and his wife embarked on a food tour of Argentina, Spain, Italy, England, Canada, and the United States. Some 13 months later he settled in Austin, where he is now learning the art of Texas barbecue and writing about food and film.
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