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Kim Jong Il's Journey Down Memory Lane

A screen capture from CCTV taken on May 7, 2010 shows Chinese President Hu Jintao (R) shaking hands with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il in Beijing on May 7. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

A screen capture from CCTV taken on May 7, 2010 shows Chinese President Hu Jintao (R) shaking hands with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il in Beijing on May 7. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

By Kongdan Oh

North Korean leader Kim Jong-il has now visited China twice in 2010, an unusual move for this reclusive and paranoid leader and a potential hazard for a small, proud country that has always been concerned about avoiding kowtowing to foreigners. On the most recent visit at the end of August, Kim’s special 30-car train made the circuit of a half-dozen cities in the remote northeastern provinces of China. This part of China is far from the political center of Beijing and offers relatively little in the way of economic models. So why did Kim go there in such state?

The best guess is that the hastily arranged trip was meant to serve two related purposes. First, it provided Kim with an opportunity to introduce his third son and designated heir to Hu Jintao, the top leader of China, who made a trip to this far corner of the country to meet with Kim. That's assuming that the young Kim was accompanying his father. No outsiders reported seeing him, although since no photograph of him as an adult exists, he would not need to wear a false mustache and beard to disguise himself. When asked a Chinese government official simply said that the young Kim was "not on the guest list" which could mean either that he was not there at all or that the government doesn’t consider that it’s anybody’s business whether he was there or not.

A second reason for making the trip is to provide more legitimacy for the young Kim's succession. By taking his son to visit some of the places where his grandfather lived in exile during the Japanese colonial period, Kim can present his son at the upcoming Party conference as someone who is following in the footsteps of the Great Leader down memory lane, as South Korea’s Chosun Ilbo newspaper phrased it. If the young Kim did not make the trip, his father can still say that the trip commemorated the great political feats of the Kim family. Of course, if it is later announced that the young Kim was there all along, the North Korean propagandists might need to explain why he was traveling incognito when, unlike his grandfather, he was not being chased by Japanese troops.

That Kim Jong-il feels he must take this much trouble to introduce his son suggests that the succession might not be smooth sailing. Certainly, the succession seems to be rushed. The younger Kim is still in his twenties, a very tender age to be running a country in which the people are unhappy with the leadership of the boy’s father. But Kim Jong-il does not have much time. His health is clearly failing him. The few times he was glimpsed on the recent trip he was limping or leaning on his escorts. He must wish that he had started the succession process sooner (from the time his father tapped him to be the next leader, Kim Jong-il had 20 years to practice before his official succession). And since Kim Jong-un is the third son, it seems likely that his father first had to reject the two eldest sons, which hardly inspires confidence about the qualifications of the Kim family to continue ruling the country.

Moreover, although most North Koreans do not (yet) know anything about the personal lives of the Kim family, such as who Kim Jong-il’s wives are or how many children he has, foreigners know that whereas Kim Jong-il was the first legitimate son of Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-un is merely the second son of one his father’s favored mistresses, Ko Yong-hi. Thus, the younger Kim may need all the political blessings he can get.

Kongdan Oh is co-author of The Hidden People of North Korea: Everyday Life in the Hermit Kingdom and an Asia Society Associate Fellow.