At a North Korean-run restaurant in Beijing last year, I proposed a toast in a loud voice, “To Chairman Kim Jong-il's return to health!” Our Pyongyang-born waitress sauntered over and declared, “The chairman is healthy.” However, my next toast, “To Chairman Kim's third son!” met with a deafening silence.
Now that the veil has been lifted, what are the prospects for a smooth leadership transition in North Korea? In the short to medium term, Kim's plan is likely to succeed, but several factors will make the leadership transition tricky.
By having both his sister, Kim Kyung-hui, and his youngest son, Kim Jong-un, join his brother-in-law in senior leadership positions, Kim Jong-il is attempting to make family rule permanent. Indeed, the most influential newspaper, Rodong Shinmun, has begun to contain references to the “Kim Il-sung race.”
Making the appointments public before the Workers' Party conference had even begun reflects a sense of urgency due to concerns about Kim's own mortality. The four stars Kim bestowed on each of them may ring as hollow as the soldiers seen dancing in the streets, but they are stars that his brother-in-law, Jang Song-taek does not have. Indeed, Jang never served in the military, which is his chief weakness as a potential leader. In the coming weeks we are likely to learn of the youngest Kim's military training and exploits (real and imagined). Given that Jang and his wife have no surviving children, they are more likely to act as foster parents rather than rivals.