In 17 years as a dictator, North Korea's Kim Jong Il, had himself celebrated as the "Dear Leader" of those he ruled. In the outside world, he became known for his nuclear posturing, his fondness for fine wines in a nation beset by famine, and a cartoonish countenance resembling boxing promoter Don King on a bad hair day.
Now, world intelligence experts are in full crisis mode as they focus on the deceased despot's unpredictable heir. Third son, Kim Jong Un, is suddenly his dad's designated "Great Successor."
Frighteningly little is known about the Great Successor who now controls (or may control, or may someday control) North Korea's nuclear arsenal. He is twenty-something years old and only last year began his military career as a four-star general. Until two years ago, the only picture the CIA had of Kim Jong Un, as The New York Times reported, was when he was attending a boarding school in Switzerland and wearing short pants.
When WikiLeaks deluged us with its flood of diplomatic cables in 2009, one of the intelligence secrets revealed to the world was that the Kim Jong Un intelligence is mainly a misnomer. We don't really know the year he was born, although he is said to be in his late 20s. We don't know for sure which of the Dear Leader's wives was the Great Successor's mother; it was reported variously to have been either the second or third wife. (Then again, experts say he also had children by at least one of his mistresses.)
While Kim Jong Il clearly had concluded that his two other sons were simply not suited to be national leaders, the prompt designation of Kim Jong Un as his successor was clearly an effort to head off the prospect of instability upon his death. The WikiLeaks intelligence flood included U.S. embassy cables in which South Korean analysts were said to have cautioned Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell that a transfer of power could lead to instability.
"Of the five experts, one thought the younger Kim might succeed and one argued his lack of leadership experience made it unlikely he would win the support of the ruling elites," the cables were reported to have said. " ... They agreed that Kim Jong Il's brother-in-law Jang Song Taek would prove a strong rival for the younger Kim and would probably be tempted to challenge him."
Kim Jong Il apparently fretted his designated heir wouldn't have the savvy and strength to rebuff possible challenges to his authority. The leaked cables also noted reports that Kim Jong Il used nuclear tests and Dong missile launchings to bolster the succession prospects of Kim Jong Un.
One Chinese diplomat, Wu Jianghao, was reported to have expressed this view to U.S. officials, according to a 2009 New York Times report that quoted one cable as saying: "Wu opined that the rapid pace of provocative actions in North Korea was due to Kim Jong Il's declining health and might be part of a gambit under which Kim Jong Il would escalate tensions with the United States so that his successor, presumably Kim Jong Un, could then step in and ease those tensions."
Just hours before the North Korean government announced Sunday night that Kim Jong Il had died of a heart attack, the South Korea's Yonhap news agency reported North Korea had conducted a test firing of short-range missiles. Officials had no indication whether there was any link between the test firing and the North Korean leader's death.
From North Korea's uneasy lone ally, China, to America's ally in harm's way, South Korea, officials are concerned that any change of leadership could be followed by provocative acts of bravado. Times are tense and intentions far from transparent.
While Kim Jong Il was said to have died Saturday night, U.S. officials reportedly had no indication of it until the North Korean government announced his death a full day later. That's a hardly reassuring window into the real problems of intelligence gathering inside the world's most opaque and draconian dictatorship.
(Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail him at martin.schram(at)gmail.com.)