'Dear Leader' firmly in charge on 65th birthday

North Korea’s “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-Il turns 65 on Friday, apparently firmly in charge of his nuclear-armed nation but with no obvious successor in sight to lead the reclusive regime.

Dozens of events ranging from a “Kimjongilia” flower festival to artistic performances and sports competitions have already been staged to mark the day, according to official media.

They say tributes or gifts have poured in from Panamanian seamen, President Putin of Russia and countless other overseas leaders or groups.

But while Kim seems secure at the helm of the world’s last Stalinist state, the succession is obscure.

And analysts say the extraordinary personality cult fostered by him and his father will not outlast him.

The key to Kim’s survival, over a decade marked by famine, a collapsing economy and international sanctions, has been his assiduous cultivation of the 1,1-million-strong military.

“Kim Jong-Il is firmly secure in power. He has successfully put the military under his control through the Songun [army-first] policy,” said Professor Kim Keun-Sik at Seoul’s University of North Korean Studies.

“Simply, no elite groups that might pose challenges to Kim’s rule exist in the communist state.”

Kim “very successfully maintained a military-first policy.
For him it was a very wise choice to control the military,” said Kim Taewoo, of the Korea Institute for Defence Analyses.

While the military is the source of his power, it is also the only institution that could topple him. But Peter Beck, north-east Asia director of the International Crisis Group, noted that the average age of top military leaders is 15 years older than Kim himself—not a time when people are ambitious to seize power.

Obsequious official propaganda and news reports of Kim’s fondness for women and fine dining obscure his shrewdness as a political operator, analysts say.

After his nation shocked the world with its first atomic test last October, the international community warned it could never tolerate a nuclear-armed North Korea.

This week, at talks in Beijing, his negotiators secured a promise of one million tonnes of fuel oil if the North disables its nuclear facilities.

Yet the current deal makes no mention of the North’s plutonium stockpile, believed sufficient for six to eight more bombs, although the United States and other nations say they will insist on eventual total nuclear disarmament.

Kim officially took over the leadership in 1997 from his father, founding president Kim Il-Sung who died in 1994 but who remains eternal president inside his mausoleum.

It was the communist world’s first dynastic succession and may be the last.

“We cannot rule out the possibility of North Korea’s hereditary succession being extended to the next generation but I don’t think Kim Jong-Il has made up his mind on the succession issue,” said Kim Keun-Sik.

“The post-Kim Jong-Il era will be a different era and the possibility of Kim’s successor being appointed by him is slim.”

Kim Taewoo agreed.

“After the death of Kim Jong-Il, I don’t think the cult system will be possible any longer,” he said, with the sons either too young or incapable of taking over.

The eldest, Kim Jong-Nam (35) has reportedly been living a comfortable life in Macau for the past three years.

He was spotted in Beijing earlier this week heading home for the birthday, but is thought to have blotted his copybook by being arrested while trying to enter Japan in 2001 on a forged passport to visit Tokyo’s Disneyland.

Two other sons, Jong-Chol (23) and Jong-Woon (20) were born to a different mother. Beck said that if some accident were to befall Kim in the short to medium term, his assumption was that brother-in-law Jang Song-Taek was heir apparent.

“In the longer term I assume he would groom one of his children, but they are clearly not ready. And none of the children or the brother-in-law have any ties to the military.

“There is a fundamental uncertainty about what comes next—it is the greatest source of uncertainty and vulnerability for the regime.” - AFP

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