This story has been updated
There are pictures released recently by the Korean Central News Agency, the propaganda arm of the North Korean government, that are meant to give the impression that Kim Jong Il is back running his benighted country after a stroke last summer. And then there are those shown here, of Kim at an indoor swimming pool. He looks old, frail and sick. The pictures, according to diplomats and intelligence analysts in East Asia and Washington, capture reality. Kim is 68, and though it is thought he has made a reasonable recovery, he has apparently not resumed all his duties as North Korea's absolute ruler. That is focusing the minds of analysts on two related questions: Who will succeed Kim when he is gone? And how will North Korea behave?
We know how it's behaving now: badly. Or, as a diplomat in Seoul puts it, throwing an "intercontinental ballistic hissy fit." On April 5, the North made good on its plan to launch a Taepodong II rocket, an armament with a range of about 2,500 miles to 2,800 miles (4,000 km to 4,500 km), which would bring Hawaii within its reach. On March 31, Pyongyang announced that it will charge two young American journalists with "hostile acts," claiming that they strayed into North Korean territory from northeastern China. And despite a worsening economy, the regime said it would toss out international-aid workers who were delivering desperately needed food rather than accede to demands from both the U.S. and South Korea that the government allow aid agencies to monitor where the food goes. (See pictures of Kim.)
But if outwardly it's business as usual for North Korea, internally, things have changed. Analysts say Kim is being aided in running the country by his most trusted deputy, his brother-in-law Chang Sung Taek, the husband of Kim's younger sister Kim Kyong Hui. Chang, 63, oversees North Korea's State Security Agency, which includes the regime's notoriously brutal secret police. That position alone, analysts say, makes it unthinkable that Chang is anything other than a hard-liner. He climbed the ranks of the ruling party much more quickly than most; more than a decade ago, he began to join Kim on visits to vital military units, where he established close ties to senior commanders. Soon, Kim was sending him on key trips abroad.
Chang, according to a source, is "intelligent and charismatic." Earlier this decade, he started hosting social gatherings at his home, and the parties attracted a following among the North's élite. In Kim's eyes, they became too popular. In 2004, Chang was accused of "fostering factions" and placed under house arrest. "Kim became jealous," says Yang Moo Jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul. But Kim remained close to his sister, and analysts believe that she played a critical role in getting her husband rehabilitated. In early 2006, Chang appeared at a New Year's party alongside Kim, a signal that all had been forgiven.
If he is helping Kim run the North, Chang has his work cut out for him. Sources in Washington and Seoul acknowledge that there have been reports of discontent within North Korea's military, despite the fact that Kim has bent over backward to keep the armed forces on his side. He has succeeded in securing loyalty from older, senior officers, intelligence analysts believe. But the economic crisis has put a serious crimp in the cash flows of illicit businesses run by North Korean military officers either directly or through cutouts. Trade with China has plummeted, in part because of the sharp drop in prices for commodities such as zinc and iron ore, which the North exports. That has "seriously cut the incomes of any number of military officials who benefit from that trade," an East Asia intelligence source says.