SEOUL » It is a telling sign of who is the rising star in North Korea: state-run television showing octogenarian party secretaries bowing to a man their grandchildren’s age before accepting the smiling man’s handshake or kowtowing to his instructions.
A year after Kim Jong Un made his public debut as North Korea’s leader-in-waiting, scenes like that — the old party elite groveling — have become a staple of North Korea’s propagandist media, a crucial tool for the country’s leader, Kim Jong Il, to elevate his son as his successor.
"The obvious message of all this to North Koreans is that Kim Jong Un is now dictating to the top elite," said Cheong Seong-chang, a North Korea specialist at the Sejong Institute in South Korea. "It reflects the regime’s confidence about his status as successor and about another hereditary succession."
When Kim Jong Un, thought to be in his late 20s, emerged from obscurity a year ago this past week as a four-star general and vice chairman of the Central Military Commission of the Workers’ Party, the first thing the outside world noticed was the obesity he appeared to have inherited from his father and his grandfather, the late Kim Il Sung, the founder of North Korea. (Some South Korean news media outlets speculated that he might have undergone plastic surgery to more closely resemble his grandfather, a godlike figure among North Koreans.)
A year on, it appears increasingly clear that the leadership is helping Kim Jong Un inherit his own personality cult. On state television, he is packaged to look like his grandfather: Mao suit, swept-back hair and the gravitas North Koreans associate with the Great Leader, who died in 1994. Less clear is whether the ruthless cunning that has intimidated generals and party elders is his or his father’s. A major factor in the political dynamics surrounding the succession is whether Kim Jong Il can live long enough to provide his son with whatever assistance he may need to settle into power, analysts say.
At national events, officials now habitually propose a toast to the health not only of Kim Jong Il but also of "the young general," said Peter Hughes, who left Pyongyang, the North’s capital, in September after three years as Britain’s ambassador.
Last November, Dr. An Jong Hyok, the physician for the North Korean national soccer team, chastised a South Korean reporter for referring to Kim Jong Un without the honorific Dear Young General.
"How would you feel if I talked impolitely to your father?" Daily Sports in South Korea quoted An as saying. "That’s exactly how I feel now. We regard Gen. Kim Jong-il and Comrade Kim Jong-un like our father."
Factories commemorate a visit by Kim Jong Un with a special plaque, an honor once reserved for his father and grandfather. His name now immediately follows his father’s in rosters of officials who attend state functions. On the Sept. 9 anniversary of the founding of North Korea, the father and son inspected a military parade together. On Sept. 23, the son joined his father in a photograph with Choummaly Sayasone, the visiting president of Laos.
"It appears that Kim Jong Un has soft-landed as successor," Cheong said.
It is a stark contrast to a year ago, when the transition, taking place in the panicked atmosphere of Kim Jong Il’s failing health, seemed as if it could pose challenges to the government’s internal cohesion.
Kim Jong Il had fought for his inheritance as much as it was bestowed upon him by his father. He terrorized the older elite and won their grudging respect in a process of consolidating absolute power that lasted decades. By comparison, Kim Jong Un was inexperienced and thrust onto a fast track whipped together after his father suffered a stroke in 2008.
The question then was whether the old elite, whose ambitions and interpersonal rivalries were tamped by Kim Jong Il, would support the son in the event of the father’s death.
Perhaps to the son’s advantage, Kim Jong Il recovered enough to make five trips to China and Russia in the past two years. Meanwhile, there has been a steady stream of political purges, according to North Korean announcements and South Korean intelligence, with top party officials executed, dismissed or demoted — and a few killed in traffic accidents under circumstances the South Korean news media found suspicious.
Park Hyong-joong, an analyst at the government-run Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul, said that Kim Jong Un was believed to have masterminded the execution of Ryu Kyong, the No.2 man in the North’s spy agency, the State Security Department, in January and the dismissal of Ju Sang Song, the police chief, in March.
"With Ryu, many others were purged at the State Security Department," Park said. "We can say that as he gained control of the department, Kim Jong Un needed to give jobs to people loyal to him."
Since the collapse of the Eastern bloc, the North Korean government has been under a death watch. But its apparently effortless transfer of dynastic power into a third generation once again testifies to its endurance.
The new leadership in Pyongyang remains determined to pursue nuclear weapons. Last November, it revealed an industrial-scale uranium enrichment plant. It is also strengthening trade ties with China, with a resulting influx of consumer goods like South Korean DVDs and electronics, and it has recently begun to reach out for talks with Washington and Seoul.
John Delury, a professor at Yonsei University in Seoul, who visited North Korea in September, said, "From what can be gleaned on visits to the country itself, Pyongyang at least shows visible signs of vitality: the increase in volume and variety of cars and trucks on the streets, construction projects swarming with workers, the bustling scene at the central market, and the incessant portaging of goods across the city — burgeoning market activity carried out overwhelmingly by enterprising women."
While visitors to Pyongyang have reported that women can be spotted occasionally in more colorful and stylish clothes, Hughes, the departing British ambassador, told reporters in Seoul this week that "fundamentally there have been no changes in terms of ideology or policy" in North Korea.
"There is no civil society, there’s no center of dissent, there’s no intellectual grouping, there’s no way of actually communicating outside of the mobile phone," he said, adding that people who have mobiles phones, estimated at 600,000, "are very careful of what they say because they believe everything is being listened to."
But there is a darker side to the transition. The North is accused of sinking a South Korean warship in a torpedo attack that killed 46 sailors in 2010, and it shelled a South Korean island in November, aggressions that analysts said might well have been engineered by Kim Jong Un to prove his toughness.
Adm. Robert F. Willard, commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, said that would be in keeping with the previous power transfer in North Korea, and that those attacks might not be the last. "The prospect of continued provocations is another dynamic that we must pay very close attention to," Willard said during a press briefing in Washington this week.