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North Korea's next top mogul?

September 30, 2010 | 11:15 am

Jong

Up until Wednesday, observers of the Hermit Kingdom speculated with some confidence that ailing dictator Kim Jong Il's youngest son, Kim Jong Eun, would soon be named his father's successor. Now some are expressing doubts -- not because of an official denunciation by the elder Kim but because of a grainy photograph showing the lumpish heir-apparent sitting with a blank, soulless stare on his face, the first confirmed image of the alleged North Korean dauphin since this shot  was snapped at age 11. This is not the stuff of dictators-to-be, some experts speculate. Times staff writers John M. Glionna and Ethan Kim report:

While Jong Eun this week was named to senior positions within the Workers' Party, another sign that he may soon be North Korea's next leader, many suggested that Thursday's photograph further called that move into question.

"Looking at a young kid supposed to be 27 or 28 and appointing him a general is something ordinary citizens are finding hard to believe," Kim Heung-gwang, a former university professor who heads the Seoul-based North Korea Intellectuals Solidarity group, said when told of the photo.

"Many sources who I spoke to are saying, 'How is this kid going to lead a nation?' "

This is precisely the kind of speculation a Times editorial  on Wednesday said underpins much of what we think we know about North Korea. The precious little information the free world had on the presumed dictator-in-waiting was shaky enough to be called into question by an unflattering photograph of Kim Jong Il's son. 

As for the latest speculation on the younger Kim's future, the Pyongyang propaganda machine managed to convince its captive subjects -- under threat of brutal imprisonment, of course -- that Kim Jong Il, whose ability to maintain tight control over North Korea was questioned before he was anointed "Dear Leader," was a worthy successor to eternal president  and "Great Leader" Kim Il Sung. No doubt it could work similar miracles with Kim's heir-apparent.

But when it comes to North Korea, every tea leaf that escapes its borders is worth a read -- and proves how little we know about Kim Jong Il's kingdom.

-- Paul Thornton

Photo: North Korean leader Kim Jong Il poses with the newly elected members of the central leadership body of the Workers' Party of Korea, including a man believed to be his son, Kim Jong Eun. Credit: AFP photo / KCNA via KNS.

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