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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Next 'Great Leader'

It is easy to spot these people on the streets of Pyongyang. They wear baseball-style caps, dark sunglasses with metal rims and fashionably cut jackets. They carry themselves with confidence, even provocatively, unlike the millions of other North Koreans who are sunk in apathy. The fate of the regime that is now headed by Kim Jong-il, the son of the late Kim Il-sung, is in their hands.

This is the highest level of Korean society: officers of the secret police, who are directly controlled by Kim Jong-il, 52. Undoubtedly, the first order of business for this new "Great Leader" will be to strengthen the functions of his security service. To a large degree, all further developments in North Korea depend on the secret police's ability effectively to control any situation.

So far, there has been no reason to suspect the loyalty of the secret police to Kim. Officers are selected from a tiny group of people who have passed through many filters. They must prove their loyalty not in words, but in deeds. The most important selection criterion is the candidate's readiness to sacrifice his life on Kim's order.

North Koreans live with the firm conviction that every action they take and every thought they think will quickly become known. Tens of thousands of state agents and their volunteer "assistants" throughout the country write secret reports every day to the head of the local security service.

They report every instance of violation of political or labor discipline. If one comrade argues at night with his wife or another does not completely open himself to criticism at a party meeting, or if a third likes to smoke Western cigarettes, then all of them can expect to be put down on the list of potentially unreliable citizens. Any further report on them concerning a violation of rules of conduct or thought will bring with it punishment. They will stop making any progress in their careers. They may lose their rice rations -- currently, 700 grams per day for white-collar workers and 800 for blue-collar workers. They may be sent to the countryside for "re-education" through physical labor. Sometimes people simply disappear, and their relatives do not even try to find out what happened to them.

The late Kim Il-sung was able to perfect the mechanisms of the totalitarian state over the course of his nearly half-century reign. He created the most effective security organs in the world. However, like every mechanism, this one occasionally acts up. It cannot be said that Kim Jong-il has inherited a completely loyal society from his father.

Signs of a breakdown became evident during the last years of Kim Il-sung's rule. The bureaucracy, especially at the middle and lower levels, had become infected with bribe-taking. In order to secure admission to the prestigious Institute of Foreign Languages, one had to pay $150-200. In order to get housing for a young married couple, their parents had to come up with a gift of about 20 bottles of alcohol and three cartons of Western cigarettes. Preferably, American cigarettes. Marlboros are for sale in special stores for the government's elite. Like all consumer goods that represent the good life in the West, they are brought into the country by Japanese-Koreans.

The young men in the security forces, however, do not smoke Marlboros: They prefer Dunhills. I asked one why and he explained that it was unpatriotic to smoke American cigarettes. Then he added that the "Dear Leader" -- as Kim Jong-il is called -- smokes Dunhills.

Many observers believe that the ideological and moral erosion of North Korean society was caused by Kim Jong-il, who has been called Pyongyang's playboy. However, it is impossible to obtain reliable information about him. I was able to discover, though, that many of the most piquant anecdotes about Kim's life began circulating among highly placed government functionaries, the so-called "old guard." These people apparently resent this upstart.

The new regime offers broad opportunities for North Korea's security apparatus. Kim will certainly let his dogs loose to sniff out rivals and hidden enemies in the upper levels of government. Now, while the country still has not recovered from the shock of losing its "brilliant teacher, the sun of the nation," is the very moment to take up the battle for consolidating Kim's personal hold on power. It is likely that the entire ruling elite, eager to avoid hunger strikes or civil disobedience, will support him in this.

North Korea's economic situation is as bad now as it has ever been. Any improvement will have to come as a result of assistance from China, which is the regime's only source of aid. China supplies primarily oil and military spare parts. Kim will have no choice but to hold out his hand to Beijing. However, this dependence will make him extremely vulnerable to criticism from enemies within his government. Koreans have not forgotten the fact that in the middle ages their local kings would make yearly trips to Beijing to demonstrate their obedience.

The process of smoothing relations with North Korea's neighbors and with the United States will be intriguing to observe. Kim may well try to entice investment by attempting some economic reforms. Of course, any steps would be highly guarded in order to avoid disrupting order in the country. On the other hand, he will certainly continue the risky but promising nuclear game that has occupied the world's attention in recent months.

Kim, however, has so far been famous for his secrecy. No one except his most intimate associates has ever even heard his voice, since his speeches are always read by an announcer. I believe that Kim will continue to maintain silence for some time to come, strengthening his image as a mysterious and awesome leader. This is his strength and his main weapon in the battle against his internal and external enemies.

Alexander Platkovsky is a reporter for Izvestia. He reported from Pyongyang from 1987 to 1991. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.