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.
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.")
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.
Verdict: Close runner-up. Jong Nam remains the best-known of the possible heirs. He speaks several languages and is technologically savvy. But the Tokyo incident damaged his reputation, and last year he briefly corresponded with press outside the country, probably angering his father. Using a South Korean Yahoo e-mail account, he conducted a brief correspondence with several Japanese journalists. "Hello, I am Kim Jong Nam," he wrote. "The year-end and New Year are approaching. I wish you good health and happiness."
KIM JONG UN: The youngest (born 1983) of Kim Jong Il's three sons, and one of two he had with Ko Yong Hui.
Why he might be the next Dear Leader: Kim Jong Il's former sushi chef has said that Kim Jong Un is the most favored of the three sons, because of his striking resemblance to his father.
Why he might not be: He doesn't appear to have held any significant positions in government, and tradition suggests that as the youngest son he is unlikely to be picked.
Verdict: Dark horse. Like Jong Chol, he no longer has his mother around to influence Kim Jong Il.
KIM SOL SONG: Kim Jong Il's daughter (born 1974). Her mother, Kim Yong Suk, was a typist.
Why she might be the next Dear Leader: Sol Song is the only one of the dictator's children whose mother is still alive and able to push for her succession. Trained in economics, she often accompanies Kim Jong Il on government trips, and he reportedly relies on her for advice.
Why she might not be: She's a woman in a society with a strong patriarchal tradition. Also, there has been no propaganda in the state media about her or her mother, who was reportedly replaced in Kim Jong Il's affections by Ko Yong Hui in the mid-1970s.
Verdict: Long shot. Confucian tradition favors passing on leadership to males only, and Kim Il Sung's wish was that the revolution continue through his grandson.
KIM HYON NAM: The illegitimate child (born 1972) of Kim Il Sung and his nurse, which makes him the half brother of Kim Jong Il, who arranged for Hyon Nam's adoption with the help of his now banished brother-in-law.
Why he might be the next Dear Leader: Three years ago he was named to a position of substantial power: head of the Propaganda and Agitation department of the Workers' Party. (Before then few North Koreans even knew of his existence.)
Why he might not be: Hyon Nam's illegitimacy will most likely prevent Kim Jong Il from naming him over one of his own sons. Also, rumor has it that Hyon Nam was recently in a shootout with Kim Jong Chol in one of the family's palaces.
Verdict: Wild card. Seems an unlikely selection—but so did Kim Jong Il, who had to fight his more powerful uncle and more favored half brother to become Dear Leader.
Sources: Bradley Martin's Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader; South Korean and Japanese media reports.