Improbably, two generations of unresponsive dictators have kept control of North Korea. Now a third Kim will try to do the same.
The fantasies of the Kim dynasty have a new reality to face
Kim Jong-il died in the line of duty on Saturday, or so the official story goes. On one of his signature trips to provide "field guidance" to North Korean workers and soldiers, the "Dear Leader" succumbed to a heart attack because of the "great physical and mental strain" caused by overwork, state-run media reported yesterday.
Whether that account is true or not, we may never know. It does fit just a little too nicely with the old propaganda line of the tireless, self-sacrificing servant of the people.
A few months after Kim's stroke in 2008, amid frequent speculation about his imminent demise, Pyongyang released photos purportedly showing him visiting the troops. They were quickly labelled an amateurish Photoshop job, depicting a healthy Kim standing in front of soldiers but not casting a shadow as they did.
North Korea's propaganda has often seemed surreal, if not outright absurd, to outside observers. There is the story of how Kim hit nine holes-in-one the first time that he played golf. When his father Kim Il-sung (the "Great Leader") died in 1994, animals were said to have been seen crying.
In particular, the idea of Kim Jong-il as a stoic servant of the people jars with the drips of information that have come out of the Hermit Kingdom. Servants and confidants who have escaped from the North describe a decadent, even perverse, lifestyle. Japanese chef Kenji Fujimoto, who served Kim from 1988 to 2001, wrote a memoir detailing overseas trips where staff were sent to procure the dictator's favourite delicacies, from Danish pork to sushi. There have also been accounts of "joy brigades", attractive young women impressed into a form of sexual slavery at Kim's hedonistic parties.
Such salacious stories have to be taken with a grain of salt. So-called "North Korea watchers" have been making predictions about the country - including about Kim's death - for decades, undeterred by their repeated errors.
There are credible sources, two good examples being North Korean defector and journalist Kwang Chol-hwan's account of the prison camps, Aquariums of Pyongyang, and online newspapers such as the Daily NK, which have reporters working covertly (and at risk of their lives) from within North Korea. But for the most part, Pyongyang's internal workings are well-hidden.
That gap in perceptions is nowhere as apparent as in the cult of personality surrounding the Kims. The broadcaster who announced Kim Jong-il's death yesterday was almost weeping, and the state-run media has regularly aired video of North Koreans swept into paroxysms of joy and tears in the presence of one of the Kims. North Korean commentary invariably features glowing praise for their intellectual accomplishments, with supernatural overtones.
One explanation for this enthusiasm can be found in Aquariums of Pyongyang, which describes the brutal treatment and executions of people who stray even minutely from the party line.
But that cannot be the only explanation. To some degree, admittedly unknown, many North Koreans do believe in this quasi-deification of the Kims, particularly evident during the reign of Kim Il-sung, North Korea's first president (some say he was initially a Russian puppet). In some unfathomable way, many people probably do believe that animals started crying when the elder Kim died, and that his son is a golf prodigy.
It remains to be seen how that loyalty will translate to the grandson, Kim Jong-un, who had two years of grooming for leadership and was dubbed the "Great Successor" yesterday. Kim Jong-il's third son is young, about 27 or 28, and is said to strongly resemble his grandfather in character as well as appearance. Aside from his education in Switzerland, relatively little is known about this new Kim. Whether he has ascended into the pantheon of the personality cult in his people's minds is an open question.
What has also often surprised observers is the regime's resilience. Isolated and at odds with the United States because of its nuclear programme, completely outclassed by South Korea's vibrant economy and, most importantly, unable to feed its people, North Korea has often seemed on the precipice. Outside scholars, some of them very credible, predicted the dissolution of the regime after Kim Il-sung's death in 1994, during the crushing famines later in the 1990s and after Kim Jong-il's stroke in 2008. Kim Jong-un faces long odds, by outward appearances at least.
The country is, and has been for a long time, in a dire situation. North Koreans are still starving to death and, perhaps more threateningly to the status quo, there have been halting steps towards a market economy, with traders selling everything from rice to South Korean DVDs. Comparisons of their lives with their southern neighbours' will have to sway North Koreans' opinions about their own country, a view supported by Daily NK interviews.
In the 1990s when Kim Jong -il rose to power, he also was perceived as relatively weak, lacking his father's charisma and image, although he had been groomed for the post for more than a decade. His ascension roughly coincided with the new policy of Songun, "military first", which stated that the Korean People's Army would have first priority on scarce resources.
After Kim Jong-il's stroke, and during his son's apprenticeship, there were reshuffles among the generals and members of the inner circle. In particular, Kim Jong-il's brother-in-law Chang Sung-taek seemed in ascendance. The myth that North Korea was guided by a single glorious leader seemed as dubious as the miraculous virtues attributed to him. Whether North Koreans continue to believe these myths, or pretend to believe, will be the test of the dynasty.