N. Korea photos spark talk about elusive heir

Some say third son is being groomed

This photograph of North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-Il, visiting a plant in North Hamgyong Province has fueled speculation as to the identity of the young man accompanying him. This photograph of North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-Il, visiting a plant in North Hamgyong Province has fueled speculation as to the identity of the young man accompanying him. (KNS/ AFP/ Getty Images)
By Martin Fackler
New York Times / April 25, 2010

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SUNGNAM, South Korea — The photographs that were published last month in a North Korean newspaper appear no different from other propaganda coming from North Korea: they show the supreme leader, Kim Jong-Il, touring a steel plant in a fur cap and his trademark sunglasses.

It is the pudgy but stern-faced young man next to him, dressed in a snappy Western suit and dutifully scribbling in a notebook, who has spurred intense speculation. Could this unidentified man be just a plant manager? Or could this be the first public appearance of Kim Jong Un, the North Korean leader’s third son and heir apparent?

“There, see how his face is in focus and illuminated even more than Kim Jong Il himself?’’ said Cheong Seong-chang, a specialist on North Korean politics at the Sejong Institute. “There is a high possibility that this is Kim Jong Un.’’

Little is known about the inner workings of the secretive North Korean government, not even the identity of the heir apparent. But if Cheong is right, the enigmatic photographs are the latest signs of the desperate push that the North Korean government is making to build a cult of personality around the son, who is believed to be 27, to prepare him to assume control as the current leader’s health declines.

The elder Kim, 68, appeared to suffer a stroke two years ago, and there have been recent reports that he is suffering from kidney disease.

Analysts say that if Kim dies too soon, his son could be pushed aside in a scramble for power among political and military elites that would end the family’s dynastic rule and might even bring about the collapse of the impoverished totalitarian state.

While this internal struggle is going on, problems continue to mount. A currency revaluation last fall, aimed at reasserting central control over the economy, is reported to have badly backfired, producing unrest and disaffection with the government.

At the same time, the spread of cellphones and DVD players has broken the North’s self-imposed isolation, giving many of its citizens a sense for the first time of how poor and backward their country has become.

Reliable information on the political system remains scant. Photographs like those that appeared in last month’s Rodong Sinmun, the ruling party’s newspaper, are among the limited evidence that analysts and intelligence analysts must rely on as they try to understand the efforts to shore up the Kim dynasty for a third generation.

Not much is known about the man who could become the next leader of the unpredictable, nuclear-armed country, even including what he looks like. The only firsthand account comes from a Japanese chef who once worked for the Kim family and knew Kim Jong Un only as a personable and precocious boy. The only known photograph of him was taken when he was 11.

For a time, North Korea watchers regarded the leader’s eldest son, Kim Jong Nam, 39, as the most likely heir — until he was caught using a fake passport to visit Tokyo Disneyland. He now lives in Macao.