NAGANO, Japan — North Korea’s recent provocative behavior — firing off a long-range rocket, threatening border skirmishes with South Korea, vowing to quit talks aimed at shutting down its nuclear weapons programs — represents familiar extortion tactics that are the bankrupt regime’s only remaining means of surviving and competing internationally.
It’s not all same-old, however.
Kim Jong Il’s health problems add an extra, domestic dimension. Recognizing his mortality following a reported stroke last August, the 68-year-old Kim needs to project to his own countrymen that he is fully in charge — heroically smiting external enemies — while he maneuvers to set things up at home for an eventual succession.
Although it's gone unnoticed by foreign analysts who looked in vain for the names of his three sons in recent lists of top-level appointments, it appears Kim actually has his successor in place. Paek Se Bong was re-elected this month by the Supreme People’s Committee, the rubber-stamp parliament, to membership on the key, 13-member National Defense Commission, whose chairmanship gives Kim himself the right under the constitution to rule the country.
But who is Paek Se Bong? Ah, that’s the problem. Paek is a mystery person. Search the archives of the North’s official Korean Central News Agency and the name comes up only twice, the first time when Paek was originally appointed to the commission in 2003. If Paek had not been re-elected April 9 this year the original reference could have been forgotten as a historical anomaly — but here we have evidence that Paek, after six years of invisibility, is very much with us.
More mysterious yet, the name evidently is a pseudonym — understandable to many North Koreans as shorthand for the “Three Peaks of Mt. Paektu,” a term the regime uses to associate Kim, his father and his mother with a high mountain on the Chinese border that is sacred in both ancient Korean mythology and communist propaganda.
Paek Se Bong, then, is a code term for one or more Kim family members being groomed to take over as next-generation head of the dynasty.
The Paek name does not refer to Jang Song Taek, Kim’s 62-year-old brother-in-law and right-hand man, whom foreign analysts have suggested could become an interim ruler or a sort of regent in case Kim should die or become incapable of ruling before one of his sons is fully prepared for the job. Jang was elected this time in his own name to a first term on the National Defense Commission. The KCNA announcement listed Jang right after Paek Se Bong, pointedly suggesting that Paek outranks Jang.
As for Kim’s oldest son, whom traditional Confucian primogeniture would place in the favored position, Kim Jong Nam, 37, has spent years living and traveling mainly outside North Korea. In recent interviews in Beijing and Macao he insisted he is not the successor — convincingly pointing out the unlikelihood that the successor would be permitted to roam around and speak to the foreign press as Kim Jong Nam does.
That leaves Kim’s two younger sons: Kim Jong Chol, 27, and Kim Jong Un, about 25. North Korean defectors in the South say both have completed a special five-year military academy education. With that qualification in progress and now under their belts, either or both could have been sitting in on Military Commission meetings following the initial 2003 appointment of “Paek,” gaining experience in running what Kim Jong Il calls a “military first” government.
While little is known abroad about either young man, many foreign analysts view Jong Un as the likely successor. South Korean intelligence sources say he is under the mentorship of Jang, his uncle, whose own brothers rose very high in the military.
A Japanese sushi chef, in a book about his experiences working in Kim Jong Il’s palaces when both youngsters were only boys, wrote that Jong Un was Kim’s favorite, not least because his looks and aggressive personality made him closely resemble his father.
If Kim Jong Un is indeed the successor, why not just announce his name?
There is precedent here in the case of Kim Jong Il himself, who was not publicly identified by name as the successor for years after his father, Kim Il Sung, chose him. Instead, while the late leader methodically eliminated any officials who were not on board for a hereditary communist succession, Kim Jong Il stayed largely out of public view. News reports during the period referred to him not by name but in code, as “the Party Center” or “the Glorious Party Center.”
Now Kim Jong Il, facing the sensitive stage of consolidating whatever succession he may have decided upon, must show strength to people at home even as he employs the same militaristic posturing to test recently elected leaders in the United States, South Korea and Japan.
Bradley K. Martin is a 30-year veteran Asia correspondent for organizations including Newsweek, the Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg News and the Baltimore Sun and the author of "Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty." He is currently based in Nagano, Japan.
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