- - Monday, January 2, 2012

SEOUL — Observers trying to divine the real power behind the new leader of North Korea’s totalitarian regime are resorting to an old Cold War technique called “Kremlinology.”

They are dissecting propaganda messages that praise Kim Jong-un as the new “supreme leader.” They will have to scour records of party meetings and search for the appearances of key figures in state media.

In the Soviet Union, a brutish transfer of power often resulted in officials of the previous regime being toppled from their party positions in the Kremlin government fortress in Moscow. They would be scrubbed from official photographs or, in some cases, shot.

“It will be good old ‘Kremlinology,’ ” said Andrei Lankov, a North Korea specialist at Seoul’s Kookmin University.

“People will be analyzing public appearances, rosters, who was standing next to whom, who was suddenly absent, who suddenly disappears.”

Kim Jong-un has the essential bloodline, following his father, Kim Jong-il, and his grandfather Kim Il-sung, the founder of North Korea. However, Kim Jong-un is inexperienced and young in a society in which age is respected.

“We may see the emergence of collective leadership, or a collective ‘regency’ system, or a very successful and smooth settlement of his power base,” said Kim Tae-woo, president of the Korea Institute of National Unification.

“The worst case is conflict within the military or an uprising.”

Hoping to avoid new tensions between the two countries, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak appears ready to reach out to the new leadership in Pyongyang.

The two nations remain in a state of war because the 1950-53 Korean conflict ended in a truce, not a peace treaty. The nuclear-armed communist North has tested two atomic weapons since 2006. Relations fell to a new low in 2010 after the sinking of a South Korean warship that killed 46 sailors and North Korea’s shelling of a South Korean island.

Mr. Lee said Monday that South Korea is prepared to “resolve security concerns on the Korean Peninsula and provide assistance to review North Korea’s economy” through the resumption of the so-called six-party talks. The long-stalled negotiations involve the two Koreas, China, Japan, Russia and the United States.

However, Mr. Lee warned North Korea that “if any aggression occurs, we will respond with strength.”

North Korea vowed over the weekend to open a drive for prosperity under Kim Jong-un. It launched the new year with pledges to end hunger, fortify the military and defend Kim Jong-un “unto death.”

Kim Jong-un was installed as supreme commander of the 1.2 million-strong military and ruling party leader after his father’s Dec. 17 death.

The North’s New Year’s message lacked the denunciations of the United States of the past and did not mention its nuclear weapons program. Some observers saw that as an indication that Mr. Kim is willing to continue talks with Washington about food aid.

The United Nations has estimated that one-fourth of North Korea’s 24 million people need outside food aid and that malnutrition is surging, especially among children.

The official New Year’s message from the Korean Central News Agency said the threadbare nation will build a “great, prosperous and powerful” state to honor the 100th birthday of Kim Il-sung in April.

“Glorify this year 2012 as a year of proud victory, a year when an era of prosperity is unfolding,” the New Year’s message said.

“The whole party, the entire army and all the people should possess a firm conviction that they will become human bulwarks and human shields in defending Kim Jong-un unto death.”

In South Korea, the term “Kremlinology” is already in wide use among foreign policy specialists.

They closely monitored the officials accompanying Kim Jong-un beside his father’s hearse during the funeral procession last week. The South Korean media called the funeral entourage “the Gang of Seven.”

The man who marched behind Kim Jong-un is Jang Song-thaek, 65, vice chairman of the powerful National Defense Commission, the currently leaderless body from which Kim Jong-il took his title, chairman.

Mr. Jang, 65, has survived two purges and is married to Kim Jong-il’s sister, Kim Kyong-hui. She is a member of the Communist Party’s powerful Politburo.

Mr. Jang - not known to have a military background - surprised South Korean pundits by appearing in a four-star general’s uniform at Kim Jong-il’s lying-in-state.

“After Kim Jong-il’s death, Jang was the only one who was promoted,” said Choi Jin-wook, chief North Korea researcher at the Korea Institute for National Unification. “I am closely watching.”

Pallbearers included Defense Minister Kim Yong-chun and Army Chief of Staff Ri Yong-ho, who is thought to be Kim Jong-un’s military tutor.

Two fellow officers by the hearse were more sinister figures: Gens. U Dong-guk and Kim Jong-gak.

Gen. U, of the State Security Department, is behind the regime’s formidable spy agency.

Gen. Kim Jong-gak, of the Army’s General Political Bureau, pledged the allegiance of the armed forces to Kim Jong-un during Thursday’s memorial ceremony in what may have been a veiled threat. His bureau monitors officers’ loyalty.

The seven were rounded out by party secretaries Kim Ki-nam and Choe Tae-bok.

Kim Ki-nam heads the state propaganda apparatus and is likely to have been behind the flurry of New Year’s editorials released by the Korea Central News Agency.

Mr. Choe has been a core figure in Pyongyang’s scientific and technological development, which may place him in the spotlight during 2012.

Michael Breen, author of “Kim Jong-il: North Korea’s Dear Leader,” said the transition appears to be “going quite well,” as Kim Jong-un is “obviously being advised.”

“He holds himself with a certain gravitas. When you look at the generals beside him, their body language is not suggesting that they don’t accept him - far from it,” he said.

Regardless of who the core figures may be, North Korea is unlikely to change policy course in any significant manner.

“I think the world is going to try to court the new leadership and going to be disappointed, as the new leadership is not going to be doing anything but what it has been doing until now,” Mr. Breen said.

“The source of legitimacy is the Kims. They are bound by the way the regime is, and the survival interests of the elite support them.”

c This article is based in part on wire service reports.