For the second time in two decades, North Korea's hereditary communist state confronts dynastic change -- and the civilized world, wary of the chronically belligerent realm's nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, draws a guarded breath.
Kim Jong Il, the squirrelly tinpot with a yen for kidnapping movie starlets, died last week. North Korea's propagandists tell us the deceased thug passed on the family tyranny (complete with various extortion and smuggling rackets) to his third son and designated heir, Kim Jong Un. (May we call him KJUN for short?)
The propagandists have dubbed the 27-year old KJUN, who was educated in an elite Swiss school and purportedly loves basketball, "The Great Successor." KJUN's preceding Kim dynasts flashed grandiose monikers. Dynastic founder Kim Il Sung (KIS), the Josef Stalin comrade who started the Korean War, favored Great Leader. The belated Kim Jong Il (OK, KJI) usually went by Beloved Leader, but bore other assorted titles, including "Highest Incarnation of the Revolutionary Comradely Love," "The Sun of Socialism" and, my favorite, "Great Sun of the 21st Century."
Great Sunset or imminent black hole is more like it. As the 21st century has progressed, prospects for tyrants like the Kims have dimmed. KIS and KJI both vowed to crush South Korea. They failed. In fact, their own Marxist utopia is a dystopia, where 2 million to 3 million people face starvation and a working filament light bulb is a luxury item.
Five years ago, China reinforced its troop contingents in its North Korean border region, not to fend off a U.S. or Japanese attack, but to keep North Koreans from fleeing the Great Kims' Stalinist hellhole. The military, however, eats decently (often stealing aid donor food), the dynasts enjoy caviar, and their scientists conspire with Iran to produce nuclear warheads.
Now, KJUN assumes power.
Or so the propagandists assure us.
KJI's sons one and two -- respectively, Kim Jong Nam and Kim Jong Chul -- have what sex therapists call "numerous issues." At least, that's the semi-official rumor. However, both are older than KJUN. Nam (a half-brother) was once deemed heir apparent, though after his father settled on KJUN, Nam disavowed any interest beyond his playboy lifestyle and mistresses. Yet multiple heirs to the throne is an old-time prescription for gruesome family murder. Ottoman sultans, to secure their thrones, had loyal soldiers strangle their brothers, sometimes in the seraglio with the concubines. In those days, sibling rivalry was a recipe for civil war. This scenario, however, seems unlikely. Why, if his crown rests uneasy, KJUN has his father's generals, secret police and commandos.
"His father's generals" is the important phrase in the previous sentence. No one really knows if his father's generals are baby-faced KJUN's generals. What these armed, slate-faced and secretive men think of The Great Successor, much less how they perceive the world, is a 4- to 5-trillion-dollar mystery. Four to 5 trillion is one wild estimate floating around of the cost of a reignited Korean War that puts the global powerhouse economies of South Korea, Japan and China at risk.
The senior generals in the army high command are Kim Jong Il's real heirs. We can speculate that they value their lives and privileges, which so far have depended on the Kims' criminal empire. But the generals know China has changed, drastically, and prospered. After suffering several vicious attacks during the last two years, South Korea no longer sends stringless cash north.
In late 2010, the South Korean government outlined a long-term plan for Korean reunification. It emphasized the South's immense strength and the North's evident weakness, portraying South Korea as the future, the Kims' regime as a dead-end past. It was the kind of political program that might give forward-thinking North Korean generals the bold idea to unseat Un and dim the Kims for good.