SEOUL, South Korea – It must be one of the biggest growth industries here – North Korea-watching, or “Kim-ology” as I like to describe it. The army of Seoul-based journalists, analysts, diplomats and spooks trying to make sense of what’s happening the other side of the world's most heavily fortified border.
Qualifications for joining this fraternity include a keen sense of the absurd, an (often) vivid imagination and a sense of humor.
KCNA via KNS, AFP - Getty Images
This picture taken and released by North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency and distributed by Tokyo's Korean News Service shows Korean People's Army soldiers celebrating Kim Jong-Il's re-election as general secretary of the Workers' Party of Korea at the Jonsung Square in Pyongyang on Wednesday.
It is also one of those rare occupations where it is impossible to be entirely wrong – or at least proven wrong, since the North is so secretive, so closed, that nobody outside (and most of those inside) really knows what's going on in the mind of its reclusive leader. So the room to speculate on the basis of scant information (or disinformation) is enormous.
Hard to separate fact from fevered speculation
This week the Kim-ologists have been working overtime, as the Workers Party gathers in Pyongyang for its most important meeting in 30 years to rubberstamp leadership changes. The meeting was delayed, which Kim-ologists speculated was a result of heavy rain and flooding delaying the members arrival in the capital, or possibly the poor health of the Dear Leader, Kim Jong Il.
Nobody really knows.
In fact there is not much that we really do know. It’s hard to separate fact from fevered speculation. But here goes.
The Dear Leader's youngest son, Kim Jong-Un has been appointed as a four-star general, and to the Workers' Party's Central Committee. Other family members have been promoted. We know all that, because it has been formally announced in the North.
The assumption is that Kim the senior wants to keep the job of running the country in the family for a third generation (Kim Jong Il took over from his father Kim Il Sung, the founder of the communist dynasty).
We also think Kim Jong Il is sick, because he looks pretty rough in recent video. Precisely what's wrong with him is a matter of speculation, but he's thought to have suffered two strokes and to have diabetes.
How long does he have to live? The more imaginative Kim-ologists have already killed him off, and think we are being duped by a body double.
What of Kim the junior? We think he was educated in Switzerland under a false name (but forget about getting any real information out of the Swiss! Just look at their banks. Why do you think he was sent to school there in the first place?) Some photographs are circulating showing a chubby-faced youth (just like his dad, the caption often reads!), though their authenticity has been questioned.
He is "about" 28, but nobody knows for sure, and he is the youngest of the three Kim sons we know about. As for his temperament, he's variously been described as a fun-loving fan of American basketball, and a vindictive child – a “chip off the old block.”
Those who follow the North Korean media say that until this week there has been no mention of him at all, and even the announcements of his new roles failed to identify him as the Dear Leader’s son.
Some analysts writing in South Korean newspapers have claimed he is already acting as a personal assistant to his father, handling all the old man’s documents. Others describe him as a spoiled neophyte lacking any government experience whatever.
Word of week: ‘reportedly’
The most overused word this week has been “reportedly.” It’s a wonderful cop-out. It saves the writer from even having to properly source the information (or speculation).
The question for the United States is what it all means for regional tension and for handling this nuclear-armed state, which was recently blamed for torpedoing a South Korean patrol boat, killing 46 sailors.
Again we have wildly differing views from the Kim-ologists:
-- One is that a continuation of the Kim dynasty will at least provide stability and stop the impoverished country from falling apart.
-- Two is that it will fall apart, since young Kim’s elevation is a recipe for instability, especially if he follows the same failed economic policies as his dad. And if the Dear Leader dies soon, the army and other old guard members may try and push him aside, on the basis that he is nothing but a brand name.
-- And three is that there will be an almighty power struggle within the Kim family itself.
I apologize if this blog is strong on intrigue and weak on facts. I really wish there were some facts. If it leaves you unsure of what is happening in the North, then you too are free to speculate!