North Korea's Next Leader A Surprising Secret

North Koreans mark the 62nd anniversary of their country on Thursday.

North Koreans mark the 62nd anniversary of their country on Thursday by laying flowers at the foot of a giant statue of their founding leader, Kim Il Sung, in Pyongyang. North Korea has managed to keep secret who will run the country next from thousands of prying eyes. AP hide caption

itoggle caption AP

For the past week, the world has been waiting for news about who will be North Korea's next leader. The speculation has been that the third son of Kim Jong Il will be anointed heir apparent at this month's gathering of the ruling Worker's Party in Pyongyang.

But in a time when news flashes around the world and nearly everyone learns everything at the same moment, somehow North Korea has managed to keep its secrets from thousands of prying eyes.

It is reasonably certain that the name of Kim's third son is Kim Jong Un. Confirming facts about him after that starts to get tough, says David Kang, a Korea watcher at the University of Southern California.

"We know very little, even people who watch very closely," Kang says. "We don't even know his age."

Best guess: 27. Not a single Western diplomat or journalist or specialist has met him.

Secrecy Widespread

The secrecy is not limited to the outside world, says David Straub, a longtime Korea specialist at the State Department, now with the Korea studies department at Stanford University.

"Kim Jong Un has not even been announced in North Korea," Straub says. "I don't think they've ever mentioned him publicly in North Korea, much less published photographs of him.

"So it's not a surprise that we outside North Korea would not know much about him."

An Industry Of North Korea Watchers

Yet there are certainly thousands of people trying to find out as much as they can about him. Every big newspaper in South Korea employs North Korea watchers, as do think tanks, defense and foreign ministries and intelligence agencies in South Korea, the U.S., Japan, China and Russia.

There is also an array of U.S. technical surveillance technologies trained on North Korea: satellites, spy planes and spy ships. There is literally an industry of North Korea watchers, and yet North Korea seems to succeed at protecting its secrets, says Evans Revere, also a longtime State Department specialist, now diplomat-in-residence at the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton.

"Why do we know so little about North Korea? One answer to that is that this is the way the North Koreans prefer it," Revere says.

It's a way for Kim and his cronies to play the weak hand they have been left with two decades after the end of the Cold War, he says.

"They are a weak country. They are obviously a country that is very fearful about their circumstances and their surroundings and their adversaries," he says. "And one of the few cards that they can play to some effect is what I call the mystery card — keeping us and others in the dark about their intentions, their system. And it, in effect, makes them a bit stronger."

Visit To China

It is somewhat of a puzzle, though, how North Korea's political and military elite have been so good at keeping the secrets, maintaining the aura of impenetrability.

An example: Last month Kim traveled to northeast China to meet Chinese leaders. It is widely believed he wanted to discuss the imminent designation of his son as the heir apparent.

Some analysts say they believe he brought Kim Jong Un along to introduce him to his closest foreign benefactors. But there are no pictures, and no solid information has emerged about whether the son was there.

There is plenty of speculation, but be mindful of who is doing the speculating, Straub says.

"Almost everyone who talks about North Korea has a very big ax to grind," he says. "From intelligence services to defectors groups, people have agendas. And it's very unclear who knows what about which issues."

Engaging The World

And so a person is going to assume leadership eventually in North Korea, about whom virtually nothing is known, Revere says.

"And this person is going to take over the leadership of this country and engage the rest of the world, including of course the United States and South Korea and China, on all of the contentious issues that have been at the heart of our relationship with the North," Revere says. "And yet here we are having a conversation about how little we know about him and their system and how things work there."

Of course, one of those contentious issues is North Korea's possession of nuclear weapons.

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