Monday, October 31, 2005

PYONGYANG, North Korea — In North Korea, where “Kimmunism” proceeds apace, even the mention of a successor to national leader Kim Jong-il can lead to outbursts by locals.

“Don’t worry about the Dear Leader,” said Choe Jong-hun, 50, an officer of North Korea’s Committee for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries, when asked by overseas journalists about a successor. “He is very healthy and enthusiastic in his work. We don’t know about his private life. Why do you want to know?”

Mr. Kim, 63, is known to have quit smoking and lost weight in recent years, although anecdotal evidence indicates a continued preference for fine cuisine and plenty of alcohol.

When a female reporter, pressing further, asked whether a woman could be anointed as leader, Mr. Choe, who was leading a five-day tour by 17 foreign journalists, turned purple.

“If you were male, I would throw you off the bus for that,” he roared.

The awe in which Mr. Kim is held was highlighted when Mr. Choe was asked which non-natives were respected in North Korea. The late South Korean tycoon Chung Ju-young, who pioneered cross-border economic aid, was mentioned. In addressing the query, Mr. Choe indicated that reverence for the Kims — Kim Jong-il and his father and predecessor as leader, Kim Il-sung — is not so much ideological as religious in nature.

After relating the story of a girl who had dashed into a burning building to rescue a portrait of the leaders, he asked rhetorically, “Who would sacrifice their lives for Chung Ju-young?”

Although it might be impossible to separate party rhetoric from real thinking of the residents of Pyongyang, North Korea’s showpiece capital, testimony to the depth of awe is the fact that many defectors who escape to South Korea remain reluctant to criticize the Kims.

Meanwhile, across Pyongyang, grandiose monuments to the leaders are ubiquitous. Even in the early hours of the day, when almost all street lighting is off, portraits and statues of the Kims remain illuminated.

Virtually everyone wears badges (“portraits”) of the nation’s founding father, “Great Leader” Kim Il-sung. Senior officials wear badges depicting both Kims. Although primacy is given to the father, as has been the case since his death in 1994, the dogma and rhetoric surrounding the son appears, contrary to press reports last year, as potent as ever.

“I can’t express the hard times and difficulties we had in the arduous march,” said Mr. Choe, using the euphemism for the catastrophic famines of the mid- to late-1990s. “If we had been another country, we would have collapsed 1,000 times. We are blessed with our leadership.”

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels established the communist union when they were in their 20s, said a typical plaque in a public building, but boy genius Kim Jong-il established a Kim Il-sung study group at age 11.

Foreign analysts agreed that no signs of a succession were visible. Andrei Lankov, a Russian authority on Korea, cited how the succession of the “Dear Leader” had been arranged.

“In the mid-1970s, Kim Jong-il was secretly promoted to the Politburo, and there was a campaign extolling the ‘party center’ without naming him,” Mr. Lankov said. “Then, in 1980, he was officially proclaimed heir.”

Another Russian academic visiting North Korea agreed.

“I think in the present situation, it is not right to make such an announcement,” said Alexander Zhebin, director of Korean studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences, given that North Korea is in the midst of a nuclear problem and is focusing on economic improvements.

Complicating a succession process are reports of internecine fighting among Kim Jong-il’s children. It is not clear how many offspring Mr. Kim has sired, but he is thought to have had eight affairs and five children.

A successor would not necessarily come from within the family, especially given the priority placed on the “Songun” (“Army First”) policy.

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