The Korean Succession: Fears of power struggle in North Korea: At home, Kim Jong Il is seen as his father's heir but abroad there are concerns that this mystery man could have a destabilising effect

NORTH KOREANS yesterday mourned Kim Il Sung by laying wreaths in front of his statues across the country, while the state- run media repeatedly promoted his son, Kim Jong Il, as the natural successor to run the Communist state.

But the death of the 82-year-old dictator has raised concerns outside the country of a destabilising political struggle, and of disruption to the negotiations with the United States over North Korea's suspected nuclear weapons programme. The key to predicting the future lies in the mysterious and reclusive figure of Kim Jong Il.

Kim Il Sung died at 2 am last Friday of a heart attack, but the news was not released until midday on Saturday by the official media. Within hours the broadcasts of the news of his death were interspersed with eulogies for the 52- year-old Kim Jong Il, whom his father had anointed as his successor but whose grip on power is regarded by many as tenuous.

The news of president Kim's death overshadowed the Group of Seven summit in Naples. President Bill Clinton expressed concern that the talks on the nuclear issue should not be delayed. North Korean and US delegates had begun talks about Pyongyang's nuclear programme in Geneva on Friday, but they were suspended on Saturday. Mr Clinton said he hoped Kim Il Sung's successor would engage in dialogue to avoid the 'isolation and misunderstanding' of the past.

In the immediate future, it seems that Kim Jong Il will succeed his father. According to the state news agency, KCNA, yesterday, North Koreans 'firmly resolve to remain loyal to the guidance of the Dear Leader Kim Jong Il'. The agency described the so- called 'Dear Leader' as 'the reliable heir of Great Leader Kim Il Sung's revolutionary accomplishments'.

The country's Central Committee of the Communist Party and the People's Assembly have been ordered to gather in Pyongyang today ostensibly to prepare for the Great Leader's funeral, but probably also to elect his successor.

But there was a whiff of hyperbole to the glowing statements of support for Kim Jong Il, and some North Korea-watchers suspect there is opposition in the senior ranks of the military to the first dynastic succession from father to son in the Communist world.

True to its secretive, hermit-like instincts, North Korea said no foreigners would be invited to the Great Leader's funeral on 17 July. Several foreign politicians bearing visas were not allowed on a plane in Peking for Pyongyang on Saturday after news of the President's death was announced.

The greatest mystery of all surrounds Kim Jong Il. He has made an art of being invisible in his own country. He has never been known to have delivered a speech in public - his wise guidance is usually read out by an announcer on the radio. In April 1992, during a military parade he shouted out 'Glory to the officers and soldiers of the Korean people', which is thought to be the only time he said anything in public.

In between the extravagant eulogies in the state media to Dear Leader's deeds, there are long periods when he is not mentioned.

For some North Korea-watchers, this low profile was a deliberate tactic worked out by Kim Jong Il to avoid attracting animosity from older party leaders of his father's generation, who might resent taking orders from a relatively young man who owed his position to his birth.

Others speculate that Kim Jong Il is simply not capable of the delicate politicking and power- broking that a Communist leader needs to survive, and that his reclusiveness is a sign of his weakness in the state hierarchy. Kim Jong Il seems to have an aversion to meeting foreigners.

Apart from an unconfirmed period of study in East Germany, where he is thought to have learned to fly, a visit to China and possibly a trip to an unnamed 'tropical island', he has not travelled overseas.

When foreign dignitaries came to Pyongyang to meet his father, requests to see the elusive son were usually met with excuses of his being in the countryside among the people. He seems to be sensitive about his relative shortness: he wears platform shoes, and on a rare occasion when he did meet a foreigner, he reportedly introduced himself by saying: 'I am not a very handsome man, am I? I am about the size of a dwarf.'

His passion for cinema is legendary: he is reputed to have a library of about 20,000 films, and has a staff of about 100 people whose sole job is to subtitle foreign films in Korean.

According to Shin Sang Ok, a South Korean film-maker who spent eight years in North Korea making films with Kim Jong Il, the Dear Leader's favourite film was 'Friday the 13th'. He liked James Bond films and Elizabeth Taylor. Mr Shin said Kim Jong Il was clever but short-tempered, a 'spoiled boy' who relished the official plaudits for the films he made because he liked people to think of him as a man of culture.

Kim Jong Il smokes Dunhill cigarettes and drinks Hennessy brandy, and diplomats who have been stationed in Pyongyang have repeatedly come across Thai and Swedish prostitutes who have apparently been flown in specially for the Dear Leader.

But although he has a widespread reputation among foreigners resident in Pyongyang as being a spoiled playboy, few have ever met him.

There are even stories of him arranging parties and then watching the entire proceedings in private on video monitors. Separating fact from fiction is difficult: South Korea has added to the confusion by demonising the North Korean regime.

Seoul was quick to blame Kim Jong Il for organising the bombing of the South Korean cabinet in Rangoon in 1983 and for the blowing up of a South Korean jet over the Andaman Sea in 1987 - but there is no proof he was involved. There is also no proof that Kim Jong Il, as has been claimed, heads a group of younger party officials who favour more economic openness than the old guard of Kim Il Sung and his co-revolutionaries.

Apart from his relative youth and lack of experience - he is a marshal in the military hierarchy, although he never served in any of the armed forces - Kim Jong Il may also face difficulties from other members of his family.

He was born in 1942, close to Khabarovsk in the Russian Far East, where his father had taken refuge from the Japanese then occupying Korea. Seven years later his mother died in childbirth, and Kim Il Sung's second wife, Kim Song Ae, never got on with her stepson. She has had four children by Kim Il Sung, and has been pushing their cause, particularly that of her eldest son, Kim Pyong Il, ambassador to Finland.

It is unclear whether Kim Jong Il can step into the shoes of the extraordinary personality cult that Kim Il Sung created. With North Korea facing food shortages and economic decay at home, and increasing pressure over its suspected nuclear weapons programme, the transition of power after the Great Leader's death has taken on a deadly serious character.

But as with the comets in the sky, the world can only watch and wait.

(Photographs and graphic omitted)

Obituary 16

Leading article 17

Life after the Great Leader 18