David McNeill: A daring attempt to prolong the cult of family dictatorship

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The Independent Online

After sixteen years at the helm of his now nuclear-armed country – which has been marked by calamitous decline, famine and economic collapse – North Korea's ailing leader, Kim Jong-il, is likely this week to attempt his most daring move yet: engineering another generational handover of power, this time to his youngest son, Jong-un.

Kim is greatly helped by the fact that the country's governing apparatus is a hollow shell after deaths and purges. The old five-man politburo now has just one member: Kim himself.

The conference is likely to nudge his son along the road to power, not anoint him. But still, if Kim mishandles the transition, observers fear the country could descend into chaos, sending millions of refugees spilling across the borders of China and South Korea.

Almost nothing important is known about Jong-un. He is thought to be in his twenties, Swiss-educated and stocky like his ailing dad. An official propaganda song has already reportedly been composed, he is now referred to as "Commander Kim" and a new breed of begonia has been named in his honour.

Pyongyang's citizens are aware a momentous change looms, but have no idea what the young heir looks like. In this hermetically sealed society, where the internet, foreign broadcasts, books and magazines are banned, and where foreign mobile phones are confiscated at the airport, they have no idea of the discussions raging beyond their borders about the leadership mystery. Perhaps the only government that knows is China, and it is staying mum.

Unless they break the law, the only source of information for Pyongyang's citizens comes from state propaganda, which relentlessly extols Kim's leadership and blasts the "American imperialist bastards" and their puppets in South Korean and Japan in language that hasn't changed since the 1950s.

Propaganda translated by North Korean watchers quotes Kim senior as calling his son: "a genius of geniuses ... There is nobody on the planet who can defeat him in terms of faith, will and courage."

Senior cadres have already seen photos of Jong-un in pre-conference booklets circulated last week, according to the Daily NK, an online source that tracks life beyond the Bamboo Curtain.

Eventually, that picture may take its place alongside the portraits of the father-and-son dictatorship that has ruled this country for more than half a century. The portraits are everywhere in Pyongyang – in classrooms, workplaces and homes, even on every carriage of the city's creaking subway system. And if that isn't enough, every adult and many children wear a badge showing the smiling mugshot of Kim Song-il over their hearts.