Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

How Secure Is the `Great Leader Mantle? Mystery Surrounds North Korea's Kim Jong Il and His Inclinations, Fueling Speculation about His Ability to Hold onto Power

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

How Secure Is the `Great Leader Mantle? Mystery Surrounds North Korea's Kim Jong Il and His Inclinations, Fueling Speculation about His Ability to Hold onto Power

Article excerpt

ACCORDING to one former South Korean diplomat, there is only one thing to do as North Korea mourns the death of Kim Il Sung and as a new leadership emerges.

"We should be cautious, but we should not close our minds," he says. "We should be open to all kinds of possibilities." These words echo the comments of presidents and experts around the world, but in the case of North Korea, such an approach is harder to pull off than it sounds.

The man who seems certain to take over, Kim Jong Il, has a truly mixed reputation. The propaganda apparatus in the North has created an inflated, sycophantic portrait of Kim Jong Il that is impossible to take seriously. (See story below.) Southern propagandists, although they have moderated their efforts in recent years, have described him as cruel, salacious, and bizarre. There may be truth on both sides, but discerning it is another matter.

He is the deceased dictator's oldest son, and North Koreans were told at least 14 years ago that he would be their next leader. But outside of North Korea, officials, diplomats, and experts have confessed that they do not know the man.

There is little in the way of a track record. Mr. Kim has rarely met foreign visitors, and his voice has almost never been broadcast. Western diplomats in Seoul say they have never seen a transcript of a speech by Kim.

What is clear is that Kim Jong Il, as he takes the helm of an isolated nation, faces conflicts and constraints that analysts say may shorten his rule.

Kim was born on Feb. 16, 1942. Non-partisan experts say the birth took place in the Soviet Far East, where Kim Il Sung was in exile, but official accounts say Kim was born on a holy mountain in North Korea. Reports say he received some education in Communist countries abroad, but he apparently returned to Pyongyang's Kim Il Sung University to study political economy.

He reportedly distinguished himself in his early work for the revolutionary cause in North Korea by producing films that effectively deified his father.

In the mid-1970s, he began to emerge as the heir-designate, and was formally named successor to Kim Il Sung at a congress of the Workers' Party of Korea in 1980. In 1991 he was named commander of the military, the most important of the many party and government titles he has accumulated.

Based on intelligence reports provided mainly by defectors, South Korean authorities allege that Kim was behind a 1983 attack on southern officials in Rangoon, Burma, that killed four Cabinet members. Kim is also held responsible for the downing of a South Korean passenger jet in 1987, which killed 115 people.

He seems to go to great lengths to get what he wants. In 1986 a South Korean director, Shin Sang Ok, and his wife, Choi Eun Hui, an actress, defected from the North, saying they had been abducted eight years earlier under Kim's orders. …

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