Once all the forced and melodramatic mourning for Kim Jong-il is over, the challenge for his 20-something son, Kim Jong-un, is how to explain the next big failure to a people desperate to see their lives improve. In a country where propaganda is truth, North Koreans need some proof that the country is indeed strong and prosperous, or someone to blame for falling so far short.
Perhaps not since a two-year-old boy named Puyi was declared heir to China's crumbling Qing Dynasty in 1908 has so much responsibility, and so little chance of success, been inherited by someone so young and unprepared. The so-called "Great Successor" is a four-star general whose only known experience in the field is studying military science for four years. Potentially in charge of a rogue regime that can turn the region into smouldering rubble, he remains enigmatic. Almost next to nothing is known about his background, approach to governance, or competence. Even his birth date is the subject of dispute.
There is also question of whether the despotism can survive a third generation. "The death of Kim Jong-il marks the end of an era when one man could decide the fate of his people," predicted Ted Lipman, a former Canadian ambassador to North and South Korea. "There is no single person who has the clout to fill his shoes, especially [not]his son Kim Jong-un, who has no track record in the party or on the battlefield that can secure the loyalty or invoke the fear that his father or grandfather could. The landscape will change dramatically as a result."
The worry must be that Kim Jong-un will stick to, or even wander beyond, his father's script of provoking the country's enemies to distract North Koreans from the problems at home. It's easier to fire blame – and rockets – toward South Korea, Japan and the United States than to reform the broken system your father and grandfather built.
And it might help Kim Jong-un convince his father's generals, who have known only confrontation since the state's creation and the Korean War that followed, that he is the right person to lead them.
"[Kim Jong-il]has bequeathed to his successor a state that derives virtually all its legitimacy, its reason to exist, from the military-nuclear sphere," said Brian Myers, associate professor of international studies at Dongseo University in South Korea. "The successor has to operate in that framework; there's no turning back."
Kim Jong-il was an unrivalled megalomaniac who propagated the legend that his birth had been marked by a rare double rainbow, and was foretold by a swallow. He resisted succession planning of any kind until mortality smacked him in the head in the form of a stroke three years ago. Since then, he and his regime has scrambled to try to give Kim Jong-un a myth of his own, something to protect the young man and the dynasty in case the Dear Leader was no longer able to lead.
After Kim Jong-un was made a four-star general last fall, he was credited with directing the sudden shelling of South Korea's Yeonpyeong Island last November, an attack that killed four people and brought the two sides closer to war than they had been for decades.
The anointed heir was given the titles of "Young General" and "Great Comrade," and began appearing in public alongside his father as they toured North Korea's factories and military facilities. He was reported to have accompanied Kim Jong-il on a trip to China – one of North Korea's few allies – this year, though Beijing has never confirmed details of the trip. He was made vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission of the ruling Workers' Party, and was expected to gradually assume other roles as well.
Some North Korea watchers even suspect that Kim Jong-un, who bears a striking resemblance to his revered grandfather – though chubbier – may also have undergone plastic surgery to enhance the appearance that he is the natural successor to the family dynasty.
Kim Jong-il had been brought along the same way by his father, who groomed him over the last 14 years of his life to take over both the country's military and the ruling Workers' Party, the parallel power structures that make up the state. Because of his father's failing health, Kim Jong-un's training has been much more hurried, and much less complete.
The apprenticeship came to a sudden end Saturday (although the world didn't learn about it until late Sunday), when Kim Jong-il died of what the official Korean Central News Agency called the "great mental and physical strain" of caring for the country. He was also said to have suffered a massive heart attack.
KCNA quickly followed that report with the news that Kim Jong-un – who is believed to be either 27 or 28 years old – was now in charge of the world's most isolated and unpredictable state. "Under the leadership of Kim Jong-un we should turn our sorrow into strength and courage and overcome the present difficulties," read the bulletin. "No force on Earth can check the revolutionary advance of our party, army and people under the wise leadership of Kim Jong-un."
At first he's expected to rely heavily on his uncle, 65-year-old Jang Song-Taek, for advice and to help him consolidate power. General Ri Yong-ho, co-vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission may also be a key ally, or a dangerous rival. Mr. Kim's two older brothers, whom Kim Jong-il passed over as unfit to rule, harbour unknown feelings toward their younger sibling, the "Great Successor."
"Succession in a communist state always is a dangerous time. There are immediate and longer-term grounds for concern," wrote the KGS NightWatch intelligence service. The short-term worry was that both North and South Korea were expected to put their militaries on heightened alert to guard against provocations from the other side. "The longer term concern is the pressure on the new leader to prove himself."
Kim Jong-un's first task will be to head the committee that will oversee a funeral for his father on Dec. 28 that will surely be both over the top and well beyond what North Koreans can afford.
Then, the Young General will have to start leading. The 100th anniversary of his grandfather's birth is on April 15, meaning he has four months to achieve the impossible, or to come up with an excuse for why North Korea will be anything but a "strong and prosperous" state.
Brace for turbulence.
The heir of Kim Jong-il
Birth: Thought to be late 1983, or early 1984.
Mother: Ko Young-hui, a Japanese-born Korean dancer who died in 2004. She was said to be the favourite consort of Kim Jong-il.
Education: Military science at university in North Korea 2002-2006. Before that, he attended an international high school in Switzerland, but left at age 15 without taking the graduation exams. He was said to be shy, but liked sports and was on the basketball and swimming teams. North Koreans have been told he speaks several foreign languages, including English, and is a whiz at computing and technology.
Role: He was made a four-star general, given senior posts in the ruling party, and put in charge of the secret police in September of 2010.
Personal life: There is a rumour that he is married, but it is not officially confirmed.
Source: Associated Press, Graphic News