Page 2 of 3   <       >

Who Will Succeed Kim Jong Il?

When reports of a Pyongyang succession plan began to leak out of North Korea this year, heir apparent Kim Jong Un was widely reported to have attended the International School of Berne, a private, English-speaking establishment near the North Korean Embassy in the Swiss capital.

But, North Korea watchers say, that student -- who went by the name "Pak Chol" -- was most likely Kim Jong Un's older brother, Kim Jong Chol. Both were born to Kim Jong Il's third wife, a former dancer who died in 2004. The North Korean leader has another son, his oldest, by another wife. He also has four daughters. The oldest son, Kim Jong Nam, also studied for a time in Switzerland under an alias, as well as in the Soviet Union.

Swiss authorities say they don't monitor North Korean students and so can't say if they have identities other than those they provide. "We don't know if a son of Kim Jong Il has been in Switzerland," said Sebastian Hueber, spokesman for the Federal Department of Defense, Civil Protection and Sport, which controls Switzerland's domestic and foreign intelligence agencies. Only foreign residents who pose a "direct threat" to Switzerland are scrutinized by security services, said Hueber: "We are not a dictatorship."

'Question of Culture'

The Swiss education of North Korea's apparent future leader raises a tantalizing question: Did it open his horizons beyond the narrow, xenophobic worldview of his homeland, where schools bombard pupils with the evils of "U.S. imperialism" and instill unquestioning obedience to a highly centralized state headed by a leader-for-life? This is in stark contrast to Switzerland, a democratic federal state in which power is widely diffused, where all laws can be challenged by citizens through referendum, and where the presidency is a rotating position that changes every year.

"There is a big difference between attending a school in a free country and a school where everyone has to salute," said Studer, the local education director. Schooling, he added, is a "question of culture," and a North Korean schooled in Liebefeld "will take something away that will have an effect on his life." Pak Un, along with fellow students, had three classes a week on Swiss history from 1291 and the evolution of the country's modern system of governance known as "direct democracy," as well as current events, which in 2000 included the U.S. election campaign.

The North Korean Embassy in Bern, housed in an elegant villa festooned with geraniums in the capital's most expensive neighborhood, declined to comment. Some analysts in South Korea have expressed uncertainty about whether Kim Jong Un has definitely been selected as successor, noting that no official announcement has yet been made by Pyongyang.

A propaganda display on the embassy's ivy-covered wall obliquely addresses the issue of succession, stressing the reinvigorating vitality of youth, a frequent theme of North Korean propaganda in recent months as the regime prepares for a transfer of power. Featuring photographs of young soldiers, young athletes and Youth League zealots, it shows Kim Jong Il as he "hands over the torch of revolution to young vanguards of Juche," the regime's idiosyncratic state ideology.

Since North Korea's founding in 1945, power has passed exclusively from father to son. A hereditary dynasty, it mixes communist cant with Confucian emphasis on the primacy of family ties. Its founder, Kim Il Sung, known as the Great Leader, fabricated a patriotic lineage stretching back to the mid-19th century. After his death in 1994, power passed to his eldest son, the Dear Leader Kim Jong Il, who, according to his own falsified biography, was born on a Mount Paektu, a sacred mountain. He was really born in the Soviet Union, where he was known as Yuri.

With Kim Jong Il, 67, now ailing, North Korea is preparing to hand the baton to the third generation -- and gearing up for a new round of hagiography and mythmaking. A South Korean cable television channel, YTN, reported Monday that Kim Jong Il is suffering from pancreatic cancer, but the report offered no details.

Last month, according to Open Radio for North Korea, a Seoul-based group with extensive contacts in North Korea, Pyongyang began holding lectures for selected audiences to trumpet the "greatness" of Kim Jong Un, the heir apparent. He was celebrated as a "genius of literary arts" and tireless patriot who "is working without sleep or rest" to promote North Korea as a nuclear superpower, according to the organization's account of the sessions. Among his purported feats: He so inspired North Korea's national soccer squad that it recently qualified for the World Cup finals, the first time the team has done so since 1966.

A confidential report prepared in May by the Open Source Center, a U.S. agency that monitors foreign media outlets, said North Korea began to prepare the way for a hereditary successor to Kim Jong Il in 2001 with an essay in a party newspaper titled "A Brilliant Succession." It didn't name anyone but defined father-son succession as a "pure" tradition, and warned that any revolution that doesn't follow tradition is "dead."

This subtle campaign accelerated sharply, according to the report, after Kim Jong Il fell seriously ill, possibly suffering a stroke, last August and vanished for months. U.S. analysts, seeking clues in mountains of North Korean propaganda, noted increasingly frequent mentions of the importance of "bloodlines" and detected veiled endorsements of Kim Jong Un.

<       2        >

© 2009 The Washington Post Company