By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, January 7, 2011; 1:18 PM
DANDONG, CHINA - Kim Jong Eun is often described by foreign government officials and analysts as the most intriguing person in North Korea. But he has been the object of far less official attention in the country he's soon likely to rule. The state newspaper does not sing his praises. His face does not yet appear on stamps, pins, book covers or buildings. And during staged public appearances, his father, current leader Kim Jong Il, does the talking while Kim Jong Eun stays in the background.
In the three months since Pyongyang unveiled its heir apparent during a Workers' Party conference, it has tempered the pace of its Kim Jong Eun propaganda campaign. This could reflect public disapproval of the power transfer. It could also reflect officials' hope that the ailing Kim Jong Il will live several more years, allowing the government time for a gradual, controlled propaganda ramp-up for his successor.
In some form or another, North Korea will celebrate Kim Jong Eun's birthday on Saturday, when he turns either 28 or 29. (North Korea has not disclosed his precise age.) The birthdays of Kim Jong Il and the country's founder, Kim Il Sung, double as national holidays, but Jan. 8 is not designated as such on 2011 North Korean calendars. One official at the North's diplomatic mission in the Chinese border town of Dandong, speaking with extreme reluctance, said that the Young General's birthday could still be declared a holiday at the last moment but that he had not been notified.
As one of the world's most secretive countries, North Korea allows outsiders few clues to its intentions and motivations. As a result, many North Korea experts look to Pyongyang's propaganda for hints and signs, describing it as a mirror that reflects the place they cannot see.
Judging by the propaganda, Kim Jong Eun so far looks less like a co-leader and more like a trainee.
Sometime within the past few months, North Korea broadcast a 12-minute, 53-second news video that, according to experts, indicates Kim Jong Eun's peripheral role. One former North Korean resident who reviewed the video, available on YouTube, said it likely aired on state television between 8 and 9 p.m., an hour designated for family viewing.
The footage shows Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Eun touring a new apartment building in Pyongyang. But it's Kim Jong Il who walks first into every room, tests the various appliances and poses for photos with the apartment residents.
When one resident performs a poetry reading, she looks at Kim Jong Il, nearly in tears. The female narrator refers to Kim Jong Il - the "Great General" - more than a dozen times. She does not once mention Kim Jong Eun, who stands off to the side, observing. Only in the final minute does Kim Jong Eun also pose for photos.
"Just as there cannot be two suns at the same time, Kim Jong Eun needs to take a sub-star role," said Cheong Seong-chang, a researcher at Seoul's Sejong Institute.
It was only last September that North Korea first revealed Kim Jong Eun to the public, releasing his photo and naming him to key positions in the Workers' Party and the military. Though lacking military experience, he was named a four-star general. When he posed for photos amid a gallery of generals and politicians, North Koreans got their first glimpse of him, the pudgy face of a starving nation.
But his status as heir apparent remains presumptive. Andrei Lankov, a North Korea expert at Seoul's Kookmin University, noted that the North's state-run media have never described him as a successor or glorified his deeds.
"There is little doubt that we see the early stages of succession, but by no means have [we] passed the point-of-no-return," Lankov wrote in an e-mail after watching the video. "On the current stage, everything still can be stopped and denied."
For international media organizations, Kim Jong Eun has become a prime object of curiosity, with CNN recently listing the crown prince among its "10 most intriguing people" of 2010, alongside Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg and Julian Assange.
For foreign governments, Kim Jong Eun's emergence has also served as a means of explaining North Korea's recent behavior. One South Korean official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, described the North's Nov. 23 attack on Yeonpyeong Island as an attempt to "solidify internal leadership," uniting the country on a war footing behind its brave Young General.
There are hints, however, of grass-roots opposition in the North to the apparent third-generation leader. Open Radio for North Korea, a Seoul-based station with sources in the North, reported that a train carrying birthday gifts for Kim Jong Eun was recently derailed en route to Pyongyang - a possible act of sabotage. One Chinese-North Korean businesswoman in Dandong, who travels frequently to North Korea, said that people there have to fake their adoration for Kim Jong Eun. She said she wouldn't mind if South Korea bombed Pyongyang's government buildings, allowing her country to start afresh with new leadership.
"With Kim Il Sung, 60 percent really loved him - truly honored him like a leader," said Cui Yingjiu, a retired professor of Korean literature at China's Peking University and a former classmate of Kim Jong Il's. "With Kim Jong Il, maybe that fell to 40 percent. But with Kim Jong Eun, it's zero percent. People don't admire a single thing about him."
Staff researcher Liu Liu, in Dandong, and special correspondent Yoonjung Seo, in Seoul, contributed to this report.