Since World War II, North Korea has been a country of extreme isolation and secrecy, fostered by its geography and its Communist dictatorship led by a dynasty. Its massive troop formations on the border not far from South Korea's capital of Seoul are a constant reminder of its potential threat. Its media has always used excessively vituperative wording against the outside world.

But in the last six months, the North Koreans have gone into a lather of bellicosity: doing an underground nuclear test, launching a long range rocket (failed) with more rocket tests forecast, canceling its post World War II peace agreement with South Korea, arresting two American journalists, threatening a "thousandfold" military retaliation against the West if provoked and more.

What is going on?

For awhile it was thought that its leader, Kim Il Sung, was positioning North Korea for negotiations with the new Obama administration. This may be one factor, but I believe deeper analysis shows that it is the succession issue driving this frenzy.

Kim Il Sung, 68, is widely reported to have suffered a stroke last August and was seen by Chinese doctors. The effects of that stroke can be seen in recent pictures of his emaciated body and face. He is no longer the chubby dictator with the pompadour hair.

Kim Jong Il was groomed by his father, Kim Il Sung, for succession for twenty years. There is a remarkable cult of personality in North Korea with an estimated 30,000 statues of the Kim family scattered about. But Kim Jong Il has delayed naming his own successor. He has three sons in the wings. He appears to face extreme discontent in the North Korean military in spite of his efforts to keep them on his side. The military are believed to be totally against any agreement to limit North Korea's nuclear and rocket development. Evidently Kim had been willing to negotiate the 2007 agreement with the U.S. to shut down its Yongbyon nuclear reactor in exchange for international aid and being taken off the terrorism list. But not any more, it would seem. He needs to bolster his own position since his illness and line up military support for the successor he chooses. Indeed, senior military may themselves be thinking about assuming power if he dies. Then there are economic aspects. World economic recession has deeply cut into the military's many illegal businesses, increasing their unhappiness. And there is a fascinating development suggesting that the absolute power that Kim and his government once enjoyed has been challenged by the dynamics of public markets that have appeared of late in North Korea.

Kim Il Sung toured much of North Korea earlier this year to allay concerns about his health. In April, he was re-elected by parliament as chairman of the powerful National Defense Commission. Also elected were two of Kim's most trusted aides: General O Kuk Ryol and his brother-in-law, Jang Seong Taek. Speculation in the West about a successor to Kim has been rife. The oldest son, Kim Jong Nam, 38, from Kim Jong Il's first wife, probably jinxed his future when he was caught using a forged Dominican passport to enter Japan to go to Tokyo's Disneyland. He also has a reputation for too much boozing and womanizing that may not sit well with North Korea's generals. There are two sons by a later de facto first lady, Ko Young Hee , now deceased, a professional dancer who was born in Japan and emigrated to North Korea in the 1960s. She reportedly took her sons on trips to Europe and Tokyo Disneyland (could the oldest son have been jealous?). They are Kim Jong Chol, 28, and Kim Jong Un, 23 or 24.

Kim Jong Chol, studied English, French and German at the International School of Bern in Switzerland, attending under an assumed name. He was said to be an NBA basketball fan and to enjoy skiing. It is not clear if the youngest son, Kim Jong Un, also went to school in Switzerland. Both attended a military school in North Korea. Both lived lives of luxury unknown to most North Koreans.

Gossip about these sons is contained in a book by a former Japanese sushi chef who worked for Kim Jong Il and who escaped back to Japan in 2001. The book described the youngest son as his father's favorite. Dubbed "the prince" by the household staff, he looked just like his father and had his temperament, including a hot temper. The book also tells that Kim the father thought his second son, Kim Jong Chol, was too "girlish", too unlikely as a successor to face up to the West.

In April there was a sign of active grooming of the youngest son for leadership in a report that Kim Jong Un had begun an apprenticeship at the National Defense Commission. Then in May, the South Korean press said that Kim Jong Il had actually chosen his youngest son to be the next leader of North Korea. This was based on intelligence reports that after the nuclear underground test, orders had gone out to North Korean embassies abroad advising them to support Kim Jong Un and include him in official songs. The North Korean press has not confirmed this designation.

Since he is so young, the speculation is that Kim's powerful brother-in-law, Jang Seong Taek, 63, would continue to run daily affairs. He is deemed intelligent and charismatic and popular among the elite, so popular in fact that Kim got jealous and banned him for a time. Kim's sister is said to have gotten her husband rehabilitated by 2007.

Unfortunately, there is nothing in this information to indicate that a regime succession would bring great changes in North Korea's belligerent stance. Quite the contrary, the internal power struggle may prolong that stance.


Ambassador Harriet Isom grew up in Pendleton and has retired to the family ranch. She was a career diplomat serving in Asia and Africa from 1961 to 1996.

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