SEOUL, South Korea—The eldest son has a yen to see Disneyland. A second son rocks to the riffs of Eric Clapton. A third is said to be the spitting image of his father.
No one knows whether one of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il's sons will take the reins of power one day, but the succession issue has gained currency as North Korea enters a new era as a nuclear-armed state.
At 64, Kim has just surpassed the age at which his father, Kim Il Sung, picked him as the next leader in the first dynastic Marxist-Leninist succession in the world.
Now, as Kim's bouffant coif makes him instantly recognizable around the globe, the hair is apparent but the heir is hidden. Some Korea watchers say it's because Kim frets over diluting his power.
"If you announce a successor, you immediately create a second source of power for people who aren't satisfied with how things are going," said Jasper Becker, the author of "Rogue Regime: Kim Jong Il and the Looming Threat of North Korea," a book published last year.
Experts on North Korea differ over how and when Kim might pick a successor.
"The third generation remains a question mark," said Sohn Kwang-joo, a former South Korean intelligence analyst who wrote a book about the Kim family and now heads the Daily NK, an Internet site. "It is certain he will try to pass on rule to one of his sons. Whether he succeeds or not does not depend on him but other factors."
By some accounts, the succession question has unleashed internecine battles—including reports of goon squads and staged auto accidents—within a clan that rules North Korea like an all-powerful royal family.
"There's an invisible battle going on," Sohn said. "At the end of 2005, Kim Jong Il himself ordered his underlings not to mention succession in public."
Kim came out on top of succession battles himself. He was tapped at age 32 in 1974 to succeed his father, the "Great Leader," who's revered as a virtual deity in North Korea. By the 1980s, the younger Kim was a co-ruler, and he took power in 1994 when his father died.
The younger Kim, known as the "Dear Leader," has had long-term relationships with at least four women, two of whom he married. The mother of his eldest son, 35-year-old Kim Jong Nam, was a beautiful film star later confined to a mental hospital in Russia, where she died in 2002.
As the eldest son, under Confucian tradition, Kim Jong Nam would seem the likely heir. But a caper in May 2001, when he was detained trying to enter Japan on a fake Dominican passport to visit Tokyo Disneyland, left Pyongyang red-faced.
"He was careless. Even before 2001, he had visited Japan often with fake passports," Sohn said. In recent years, the eldest son has resided largely in China but moves among Macau, Hong Kong, Southeast Asia and Uzbekistan, he added.
The son is known to stop at North Korean embassies when he runs low on money.
"It seems that he doesn't hold any official position or any stable job. He is loitering here and there with fake passports," said Cui Yingjiu, a retired North Korea scholar at Beijing University who went to university in Pyongyang with Kim Jong Il in the early 1960s.
Kim had two other sons and a daughter with Ko Yong Hi, an ethnic Korean born in Japan whose parents returned with her to North Korea in the early 1960s. She died of breast cancer several years ago after treatment in Paris.
Like his elder half-brother, Kim Jong Chol, now 25, was educated in Switzerland, studying in Bern while his older brother attended school in Geneva, Sohn said.
The father reportedly didn't fancy his second son's taste in music and considered him "no good because he is like a little girl." The remark was overheard by Kenji Fujimoto, the pseudonym of a Japanese who spent 13 years in North Korea until 2001 as Kim's personal sushi chef, later writing the memoir "I Was Kim Jong Il's Cook."
The second son's fondness for pop music apparently thrives. The Korea Times newspaper reported that Kim Jong Chol was videotaped attending an Eric Clapton concert in Germany in June. Swiss schoolmates reportedly confirmed his identity on the video.
Fujimoto described the third son, Kim Jong Un, 23, as most similar to his father, someone who "resembles him in every way" and may become the eventual leader.
Becker, the author, said the succession battle had grown intense.
"Different factions have coalesced around different candidates. So there have been fierce struggles," Becker said.
The South Korean news media reported two separate shooting incidents last year that reportedly involved factions of competing sons in clashes.
The sons live "like a rich tycoon's children," Becker said. "They behave as immensely wealthy people. They do whatever they like."
Some scholars think that none of Kim Jong Il's offspring will assume his mantle.
"Kim Jong Il's sons are not capable. Kim himself said that. If Kim was going to give his power to any individual, he would have started preparing for it long ago," said Cui, the Beijing scholar, adding that Kim "might give power to a group of people—a collective leadership like what China has now. That possibility is high."
North Korea's Oct. 9 testing of a nuclear weapon makes any announcement of a successor to Kim Jong Il unlikely in the near future.
"Kim Jong Il is not in a situation now to make a public naming of a successor," Sohn said. "He's got the nuclear issue and food (shortage) problems and all sorts of other problems."
Most scholars agree that Kim Jong Il's grip on the country is firm.
"He has strong power right now over North Korea," said Nam Sung-wook, a professor of political science at Korea University. "He controls every person and every group so well through the secret police."
(McClatchy Newspapers special correspondent Fan Linjun contributed to this report from Beijing.)
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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