The government of North Korea is a giant criminal syndicate, or so it is generally believed. The rulers of the Hermit Kingdom allegedly profit from selling opium and running a black market in weapons technology, pushing missiles and nuclear know-how on the likes of Syria and Pakistan. It has been widely reported that the North Koreans make additional ill-gotten gains from counterfeiting passports and currency. Some of this may be exaggerated. It could be, for instance, that North Korea merely peddles bogus $100 bills that are made in China. But there is no doubt that control of the government in Pyongyang is a rich, if tainted, prize. While roughly a third of the population is malnourished, the rulers can divvy up a $40 billion economy that draws on North Korea’s plentiful natural resources, including gold. The question is, who gets the gold?
Succession is always a tricky subject in totalitarian states. In the case of North Korea, a bizarre world shrouded in secrecy, it is a source of urgent fascination for the country’s neighbors and for the United States, especially since the prize includes control over nuclear weapons and, possibly, the eventual capacity to launch them on Tokyo—or Hawaii.The current ruler, Kim Jong Il, seems to be tottering. He reportedly suffered a stroke a year ago, and may be ill with cancer as well. At 68, he rarely appears in public, and when he does he looks frail and dazed. Because nothing is certain about North Korea, the true state of his health is still debated in the intelligence community, with some officials, who requested anonymity when discussing sensitive in-formation, arguing that Kim is not as ill as advertised. Nonetheless, he does seem to be worried about passing power to one of his three sons.
None of them seems remotely ready for the job. They do not appear to be self-indulgent sadists, like Saddam Hussein’s evil progeny, Uday and Qusay. They’ve apparently inherited their father’s more benign, if eccentric, tastes for things Western. Kim, also known as the Dear Leader, has boasted to guests that he owns 20,000 movies, and he once instructed his ambassador to the United Nations to obtain a copy of Sudden Death, starring Jean-Claude Van Damme, who is said to be the Dear Leader’s film hero. The North Korean ruler’s sons variously worship Armani, NBA stars, Eric Clapton, and Disneyland. The third son, Kim Jong Un, is the most mysterious. That may be for his protection, as he seems to be the heir apparent. But his ability to hold on to power in a renegade dictatorship widely regarded as an international pariah is very uncertain. NEWSWEEK recently tracked the paths of Kim Jong Il’s three sons. Their stories might seem comical if the stakes were not so large.