Cheonan attack may be tied to North Korean succession

Kim Jung Il's 20-something son, Kim Jung Un, is rumored to be the next leader of the Hermit Kingdom. Could the March attack that sank a South Korean navy ship be connected to the succession?

By , Associated Press

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    A frame grab taken from South Korean TV station KBS and released on February 12, 2009 shows an image which the station identified as Kim Jong-un, the third son of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, at the age of 11. Kim Jong-un is currently in his 20's and is rumored to be the next leader of North Korea.
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Young, inexperienced and virtually unknown even at home, Kim Jong Un needs at least a few political victories under his belt if he is to succeed his father as leader of communist North Korea.

The sinking of a South Korean warship may well have provided Kim Jong Il's 20-something son and rumored heir with a victory that would bolster his support within the communist country's military, a million-man force in need of a boost after a November sea battle left one North Korean sailor dead.

North Korea has vehemently denied involvement in the torpedo attack that sank the Cheonan near the Koreas' sea border in March, killing 46 sailors in one of the boldest attacks on the South since the Korean War of the 1950s.

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The timing might seem inexplicable: After a year of intransigence, North Korea seemed willing and ready to return to nuclear disarmament talks.

But North Korea has never seen violence and negotiation as incompatible, and domestic issues — a succession movement and military discontent — may be more urgent than foreign policy.

North Korea's leaders tightly control information and thrive on myths and lies. However, they cannot hide that the nation is in turmoil, struggling to build its shattered economy and to feed its 24 million people. The number of defectors is rising, and the encroachment of the outside world, through videos and films smuggled from China, has shown citizens what lies beyond the so-called Hermit Kingdom's borders.

Kim Jong Il, now 68, is ailing. North Korea has never confirmed that he suffered a stroke in 2008, but his sudden weight loss last year and the persistent paralysis that has left him with a slight limp was visible during his rare trip to China last month.

None of his three sons has had the benefit of the more than a decade of grooming Kim had by the time he took over after his father Kim Il Sung's death in 1994, and the regime says it is determined to usher in a "stronger, prosperous" era in 2012, the centenary of the patriarch's birth.

Any change in leadership has the potential to be traumatic and tumultuous. A bold attack would be a quick way to muster support and favor in a country where one in 20 citizens is in the military.

North Korea has attacked the South a number of times, despite the 1953 truce that ended the devastating Korean War. South Korea has never retaliated militarily, mindful of the toll another war would have on the Korean peninsula.

The North's deadliest attack was a bomb smuggled aboard a Korean Air flight, which was decimated over the Andaman Sea in 1987, killing 115 people on board.

A North Korean agent captured in connection with that plot said the mastermind was Kim Jong Il, then a few years shy of taking over as leader.

Pyongyang has never admitted to any of the post-truce attacks and may have counted on little proof being uncovered when it sent a submarine loaded with a torpedo into the choppy Yellow Sea on March 26.

But the distinctively North Korean script scrawled on the inside of a torpedo fragment found during the investigation, among other evidence, was a damning fingerprint.

The Cheonan was a symbolic target: The 1,200-ton frigate was involved in a 1999 skirmish between the two Koreas that the South claims killed as many as 30 North Koreans.

North Korea disputes the western sea border drawn by U.N. at the close of the Korean War, and those waters have been the site of two other bloody battles since 1999: a firefight in 2002 that killed six South Koreans, and a clash just last November that Seoul says killed a North Korean sailor.

The North Korean navy was ripe for revenge. And defectors say it may have needed a boost, since even relatively well-fed military leaders in a regime built around a "military-first" policy had been going hungry in recent years.

Not long after the November skirmish, the regime enacted sweeping currency reforms. North Koreans were ordered to exchange a limited amount of bills for a new currency, and to turn the rest over to the government — a move that effectively wiped out any personal savings.

The reforms were a disaster. There were reports of riots and unrest — previously a rarity in totalitarian North Korea. If it was a move to showcase the young, Swiss-educated son's economic acumen, it was a miscalculation.

The submarine attack, however, was a stealth move. North Korea's outdated arsenal cannot match South Korea's state-of-the-art systems, but the slow-moving sub somehow went undetected by Seoul's sophisticated radars.

Regardless of who ordered the attack, credit for it may have been circulated among top military commanders to build support for the fledging heir apparent, already reportedly dubbed the "Brilliant Comrade."

To the broader public, the North characterizes blame for the attack as a smear campaign instigated by the South.

And that suits the regime's purposes just fine. There's nothing like a mortal enemy to rally the masses in North Korea, a reclusive state built on the philosophy of "juche," or self-reliance.

Washington and Seoul are leading the effort to haul Pyongyang back before the U.N. Security Council for more sanctions or, at the very least, censure. Even that may play right into the Brilliant Comrade's political plans.

In the past, the North has used its position as the bad boy of the nuclear world to behave even more badly. Missile tests in 2006 were followed by a nuclear test, its first. And last year, Security Council condemnation was followed just a month later by the regime's second atomic test.

International criticism could provide the North with the opening to carry out a third test that would move the regime closer to its goal of perfecting an atomic bomb small enough to mount on a long-range missile. It would be another accomplishment for North Koreans to celebrate, and another achievement for the son to claim.

It remains to be seen if and when Kim Jong Il will present his youngest son, a figure so enigmatic that his birthday, age and even his face remain a mystery, to the public as his heir-apparent.

The annual gathering of North Korea's rubber-stamp parliament came and went in April without any sign of either the elder Kim, known as the Dear Leader, or the Brilliant Comrade. A rare extraordinary session has been scheduled for June 7.

If the precocious prodigal son did indeed plot the attack that plunged inter-Korean relations to their lowest point in a decade and sent world leaders into a huddle on how to avert war, he may finally have a reason to make his political debut.

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Jean H. Lee is AP's bureau chief in Seoul.

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