North Korea's Enigmatic President-in-Waiting

IT'S a log cabin-to-White House tale of sorts, North Korean-style.

Here, in a secret military camp nestled in the shadow of the Korean Peninsula's venerated ancestral mountain, Kim Jong Il, son and hand-picked successor of late North Korean dictator Kim Il Sung was allegedly born in a pine cabin in 1942.

His father, a celebrated fighter, was away battling the Japanese in a guerrilla war that brought the elder Kim to power as the country's ''Great Leader,'' as he has long been known. Still, crowds cheered the son and heralded his future: ''Oh, all of Korea! We announce the Star of Korea is born!''

Mythologized by relentless propaganda that helped keep his father in power for almost 50 years, North Korea's president-in-waiting still waits, almost a year after his father's death, to take the full reins of power.

Reclusive and lacking his father's presence and charisma, the younger Kim -- referred to as the ''Dear Leader'' -- has nonetheless basked in the personality cult that established his family's credibility, and is expected to add his father's civilian titles of president and party chief to his already-considerable military influence this year, Korean experts say.

Kim Jong Il is already supreme commander of the Army, chairman of the National Defense Commission, head of the Workers' (Communist) Party military committee, and the controlling force of the powerful security apparatus.

Punching Holes in a Past

But like his father, Kim Jong Il has had to fabricate a mythic and heroic past to win respect in a country where almost all young men are mobilized and the military has been a key power-broker in the Kim succession. Kim Il Sung actually sat out World War II in Soviet Siberia where his son was born, according to Russian and Western historians.

With the help of North Korean hagiographers, the contrived nativity near sacred Mt. Paekdu is accepted as a sign that the younger Kim is ''the successor to lead the revolution of the Great Leader Kim Il Sung,'' Kim Chun Su, a reverent guide, told foreign visitors outside the log cabin.

Awaiting his father's titles may be ''a symbol of his strength, not weakness,'' says a foreign diplomat in Pyongyang. ''He doesn't need the titles to show he's in charge.''

Indeed, despite talk of coups and civil war after Kim Il Sung's death last summer, the younger Kim has virtually ruled in a surprisingly smooth transition that is the first dynastic succession in the Communist world.

Some foreign residents say the long waiting period before the younger Kim's rise to full power could be ending as the country prepares to bury the embalmed body of Kim Il Sung.

Diplomats in Pyongyang, who have been told burial was delayed in deference to the nation's sorrow, have noted construction activity near the Presidential Palace in what could be a future mausoleum site.

The military leadership, having held the highest positions in the regime after the Kims, could be awaiting a symbolic date to anoint the younger Kim. Possibilities include the first anniversary of Kim Il Sung's death, the Aug. 15 anniversary of Korea's liberation from Japanese occupation, the Sept. 9 founding of the North Korean state, and the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Workers' Party on Oct. 10.

Although his infrequent public appearances have been strictly before military groups in recent years, the Korean leader appeared in a civilian forum last month for the first time since his father's death.

Despite doubts among some Western and South Korean analysts about Kim Jong Il's military support and credibility, Pyongyang diplomats suggest his backing appears to be solid. While the young Kim is believed to enjoy less enthusiasm among younger officers and faces resistance from anti-South opponents in the military, he currently has no major challengers and has been groomed by his father for more than 20 years.

''He didn't just fall into his position,'' observes one foreign resident in Pyongyang.

Still, given the murkiness of the succession process, Kim Jong Il still lives in his father's shadow. Whether it's thousands of gymnasts chanting ''Led by the supreme commander Kim Jong Il, we will win,'' or a chorus line of children singing, ''Let's get ready for the supreme commander comrade Kim Jong Il,'' his propaganda is always an accompaniment to his father's.

North Koreans loyally sport Kim Il Sung badges on their lapels daily, but there are as yet no commemorative pins of the son. ''The people say they want to wear badges of Kim Jong Il, but he is too modest and refuses to let them do it,'' says Chae Sung Chol, a guide for a recent group of Western visitors.

Who is the younger Kim

A mystery man believed to be in poor health in recent years, Kim Jong Il has several conflicting personas: A political hard-liner blamed for past terrorist attacks, a spoiled playboy who likes fast cars and Western movies and who once kidnapped a South Korean director to enliven the country's cinema, and a technocrat who pushed through North Korea's foreign investment laws and seeks to revive the economy within the confines of his father's socialist dogma.

South Korean intelligence officials have blamed him for the brutal murder of two US officers in the demilitarized zone in 1976, the 1983 assassination attempt on then-South Korean President Chun Doo Hwan in Rangoon, and the 1987 bombing of a Korean airliner.

Yet, Western analysts say his survival will depend on how deftly he can forge a new power base of government pragmatists by resolving the standoff over the country's nuclear program and negotiating help for North Korea's badly faltering economy. While foreign observers in Pyongyang don't expect a coup or dramatic collapse of North Korean communism, they suggest a less-extreme regime could evolve as moderates gradually edge out hard-liners over time.

The recent breakdown of talks on freezing its nuclear program has raised fears that North Korea could again refuel the reactor suspected of producing materials for nuclear weapons and prompt the United States, Japan, and South Korea to seek United Nations sanctions against Pyongyang.

But foreign observers here suggest that both sides desperately want to avoid military confrontation that they say is less likely under Kim Jong Il than his father.

''Negotiations are the cheapest kind of struggle for both sides,'' a Western observer said, suggesting that a less hostile atmosphere prevails in Pyongyang.

The younger Kim also confronts an economy bankrupted by the elder Kim's economic doctrine of juche, or self-reliance and suffering from food shortfalls, power outages, transportation snafus, and the loss of one-time socialist allies, China and the former Soviet Union.

Based on Kim Il Sung's last pronouncements urging North Korea to change its economy, a policy of economic openness could gradually evolve, analysts say.

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