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Rising Son

North Korea is one the most isolated, repressive, and dangerous nations in the world. Soon, its ailing dictator may hand over power to his mysterious 20-something son.

By Patricia Smith

For 16 years, Kim Jong Il has ruled North Korea with an iron fist and very bizarre behavior: He almost always appears in public in a khaki jumpsuit, oversize sunglasses, and platform shoes; he rarely smiles, and has a taste for caviar and Rambo movies.

Yet this man—who inherited his job from his equally autocratic father—has managed to make North Korea a nuclear power and a constant threat to its neighbors and the world.

Now, with Kim in poor health after a stroke in 2008, it looks like he's poised to hand power to his youngest son, Kim Jong Un.

Little is known about Kim Jong Un, who is believed to be 27 or 28. He attended school for a time in Switzerland, speaks some English, and probably German. His older brothers were uninterested in taking over or deemed incapable. (His oldest brother fell out of favor in 2001 after he tried to enter Japan on a fake passport so he could visit Tokyo Disneyland.)

News of the son's ascension comes at time of tension between North and South Korea. In March, a North Korean torpedo sunk a South Korean warship, killing 46 people. As a result of the attack, for which North Korea denies responsibility, South Korea suspended all trade and aid to the North for six months.

In fact, tensions go back to the roots of the Korean War, which began 60 years ago, in June 1950.

Until the end of World War II, the Korean Peninsula was occupied by Japan. When the fighting stopped in 1945, the Soviet Union occupied the northern half and installed a Communist regime, while Allied forces assumed control over what became South Korea.

Korean War

In 1950, North Korea, backed by the Communist regimes of the Soviet Union and China, invaded the South. The United Nations called up an international force to defend South Korea, with the U.S. supplying 90 percent of the troops and equipment.

By the time a ceasefire was signed in 1953, 34,000 Americans had been killed. But North and South Korea have never signed a peace treaty, which is why 28,000 American troops remain in South Korea, concentrated around the capital, Seoul, just 35 miles from the North Korean border.

When the Soviet Union and other Communist regimes collapsed in 1991, it left North Korea as one of the world's few remaining Communist states. That's when its economy began a catastrophic decline.

Around the same time, a series of droughts and floods led to massive crop failures. By some estimates, as many as 2 million people have died of starvation in the years since, even as the regime spends a fortune to maintain its army of 1.2 million and its nuclear program.

In 2006, North Korea announced it had exploded a nuclear bomb. In 2009, it tested ballistic missiles, expelled U.N. nuclear inspectors, and scrapped all of its agreements with South Korea. And in November, North Korea revealed a uranium enrichment plant in Yongbyon that American officials fear is meant for producing nuclear weapons.

All this is deeply troubling to the U.S.— as is North Korea's habit of selling whatever weapons it develops to anyone willing to pay for them. So while the obvious fear is that North Korea might use nuclear weapons against its neighbors or other nations, the larger worry in this era of terrorism is: Who else might end up with North Korean nuclear technology?

In recent years, conditions within North Korea have continued to deteriorate. The state-run economy is in shambles: About three-quarters of its factories sit idle. There are almost no cars on the road, even on the biggest highways. Because of power shortages, electricity is turned off in most of the capital, Pyongyang, at night.

It is probably the most isolated country on earth. There is no Internet for ordinary citizens. TVs and radios are altered so they receive only government channels. Punishment for watching foreign films or TV shows is stiff—six months in a labor camp for watching a Jackie Chan action movie from Hong Kong.

South Korea's Success

South Korea, by contrast, has transformed itself in the last 20 years into one of the world's most vibrant democracies, with an educated population and a booming high-tech economy. (Nearly 80 percent of South Koreans have broadband Internet access at home, the highest rate in the world.)

Things got even worse for North Koreans last November when the government suddenly devalued the nation's currency in an effort to prop up the economy—a move that effectively wiped out people's meager life savings.

It also increased resentment toward the government. The number of North Korean defectors who make it through China to South Korea has steadily risen for a decade, hitting nearly 3,000 last year.

For those left behind, all they can do is struggle to survive. One family in Chongjin scraped together $1,560 through years of sacrifice, but it was suddenly reduced to $30 as a result of the November devaluation.

"How we worked to save that money!" the father exclaimed, cursing between sobs. "Thinking about it makes me go crazy."

(The New York Times Upfront, Vol. 143, December 13, 2010)