BEIJING // A North Korean opera that premiered during Kim Jong-il's visit to China last week and is now touring the country offers a subtle but unmistakable hint that the leader's son will inherit power, according to some analysts. An exchange between Mr Kim and the Chinese president, Hu Jintao, seemed to support China's backing for an inheritance of power in North Korea, they said.
The opera, A Dream of Red Mansions, which is an adaptation from a famous Chinese novel, diverts from the Chinese original and unduly highlights the young male protagonist. It "excessively glorifies him, with ubiquitous implications that are meant to justify Kim Jong-il's father-to-son power handover", said South Korea's JoongAng Ilbo newspaper. South Korea's largest-selling newspaper Chosun llbo said: "A major goal of Kim Jong-il's visit to China is to have his choice of the heir approved by China."
"The heir issue is of prime importance to North Korea and a very sensitive issue to both North Korea and China. If it had to be included in the summit, it should be expressed in an indirect and subtle manner," fitting to the East Asian cultural tradition, said Lee Hee-ok, a North Korea analyst at Sungkyunkwan University in Seoul. Analysts supporting this view said the opera, which Mr Kim and Mr Hu had been expected to watch sitting side-by-side, would fit the diplomatic subtlety nicely.
The Chinese novel was written in the mid-18th century during the Qing Dynasty. It revolves a tragic love affair between one man in his 30s and two women, set in a feudalistic social milieu that suppresses individual emotions, including love. The North Korean version puts the male protagonist, Jia Baoyou, in his mid-20s, which is supposedly the age of Mr Kim's heir and the third son, Jong Un.
The change from the original, together with "excessive beautifying of the male protagonist, repeatedly reminds the audience of Kim Jong-il's third son who was picked as the next leader", the newspaper said. During their summit in Beijing last week, Mr Hu said the two countries share the common historical responsibility of continuing their friendly ties "from generation to generation", according to the official Xinhua news agency.
Mr Kim, in response, said: "The friendly ties between the two countries shouldn't change because of generational changes in the future." Observers say that the two leaders' exchanges were in fact a politically coded message in which China endorsed Mr Kim's choice of the heir. The signs of floating the heir were also shown when, during an interview with Chinese state television, CCTV, the North Korean actor Kim Il Hwang, who played the male protagonist, made a comment that also underscored generational continuity. "My grandfather, who was an actor, played the same male protagonist decades ago. So, it is the honour of my family for me to take over the role of my grandfather."
But Chae Myung Suk, the director of the opera, denied the existence of a political message. "It was made to commemorate the 60th anniversary year of the Sino-North Korea friendship," he said. In North Korea, works of art are supposed to follow the tradition of "socialist realism", which glorifies the roles of the poor, but mostly they glorify Mr Kim and his family. Zhang Yun, a professor of drama at Beijing Foreign Studies University, said she understood the argument that the male protagonist in Pyongyang's version of A Dream of Red Mansions was actually a depiction of Mr Kim's son, but said she did not believe it herself.
"The original Chinese version focuses more on the aspect of the feudal society that stifles human feelings. But the North Korean version, surprisingly, is much more romantic. The male character insists on having his own love. He is not a political leader," Ms Zhang said. "I don't think there was any politics in it." South Korean media outlets had widely expected that the Chinese president, Hu Jintao, and Mr Kim would watch the opera together, which they said would have constituted a symbolic gesture of the Chinese recognition of North Korea's choice of the heir.
Mr Kim, however, unexpectedly departed Beijing before watching the opera. But Mr Lee, the North Korea analyst, warns against reading too much into circumstantial evidence. "Some see it as an abrupt act. But I don't see it that way, I think it was pre-coordinated," he said. Zhu Feng, a security analyst at Peking University in Beijing, said: "The succession issue," contrary to media predictions, "was not the focus of the summit", citing the absence of Mr Kim's son in the North Korean delegation.