By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, June 10, 2009 6:36 AM
TOKYO, June 10 -- The top defense official in South Korea told troops this week that North Korea is launching missiles, testing nuclear devices and whipping up global tension so that its ailing leader, Kim Jong Il, can create conditions for a "hereditary transfer of power."
Defense Minister Lee Sang-hee's remarks were the clearest signal so far that South Korea views the North's recent eruptions of belligerence as part of an unfolding succession drama, as Kim lays the groundwork for handing power over to his third son, Kim Jung Un, who is 26.
Many analysts say that by fomenting confrontation and demonstrating military prowess the elder Kim, who is 67 and suffered a stroke last summer, is trying to distract North Koreans from the collapsed economy and continuing food shortages -- and make a security-based case for giving power to his young son.
The North Korean leadership "does not hesitate to commit provocative acts" to achieve political goals, Lee said in an internal message to the military, which was later released by a spokesman.
Lee said that Kim Jong Il is "obsessed with the development of nuclear power, launching of missiles and creating tension in order to build the basis for hereditary power transfer to his successor."
Lee did not mention Kim's third son by name, but South Korea's intelligence agency told lawmakers last week that Jong Un, who attended a private school in Switzerland as a teenager, was his father's choice to take over the family dynasty that has run the communist country for 61 years.
Inside North Korea, school children and soldiers have begun singing songs of praise to Jong Un, who is sometimes called the "Young General," according to aid groups that have contacts within the country.
In a brief and surprisingly amiable interview broadcast this week on Japanese television, Kim Jong Il's eldest son said his youngest brother appears to have been given the leadership nod.
Kim Jong Nam, 38, was asked by a reporter from Nippon TV if Jung Un would be the successor.
"I think so," he said, during the June 6 interview, which occurred on a street in Macau, where Jong Nam often travels, apparently without security guards. "I hear this news on the media. I can't confirm and I can't say no."
As eldest son, Jong Nam had been viewed for years as the likely successor. But his chances apparently collapsed in 2001, when he embarrassed his father by getting caught as he tried to enter Japan on a phony passport. He told Japanese officials he wanted to visit Disneyland in Tokyo.
Jong Nam said during the interview that he has no chance in the future to be leader of North Korea. "By the way, I think I am a lucky person," he added.
The television reporter asked Jong Nam if his youngest brother-- whose photo has never been released by the North Korean government-- looks like their father.
"I think so," Jong Nam replied. "My father likes my brother very much."
Inside North Korea, meanwhile, the state-controlled media has become increasingly apoplectic about the likelihood that the U.N. Security Council will impose new sanctions against the North for its test last month of a nuclear device.
On Tuesday, one government newspaper said the North would use nuclear weapons in a "merciless offensive" if provoked.
On Wednesday, another newspaper said that U.S. protection of South Korea with nuclear weapons was an "undisguised declaration of nuclear war against" North Korea.
"It's self-evident that we cannot just sit by and wait to die when the U.S. publicly declared it will attack our republic with nuclear weapons," the newspaper said in a commentary carried by the Korean Central News Agency.
While North Korea has made substantial progress in its nuclear and missile programs, it is not yet believed to have a reliable nuclear weapon or a reliable way of delivering such a weapon to another country.
The United States repeated Tuesday that while it will protect its allies in Northeast Asia, it has no plans to invade North Korea or topple the government there.
Stephen Bosworth, the U.S. special envoy to North Korea, said in New York that the North's recent behavior does require "that we expand our consideration of new responses."
Still, he said the United States wants the North to start talking again.
"We have no intention to invade North Korea or change its regime through force," he said.
Special correspondent Stella Kim in Seoul contributed to this report.