Jacob Heilbrunn

North Korea's New Young Eun

North Korea's plans for dynastic succession appear to be moving ahead smoothly. The country's reclusive leader Kim Jong Il has promoted his son and sister right before a special party congress. Kim Jong Eun, who is in his twenties, has become a 4-star general. So has his aunt, Kim Kyong Hui.

She sounds  (and looks) like a tough old biddy (among her accomplishments has apparently been stashing millions away in Swiss bank accounts and running various industries), while her nephew is obviously inexperienced, though he wasn't so foolish as his older brother Kim Jong Nam to visit Tokyo Disneyland on a false passport and blow his succession chances. No doubt he hasn't "learned the ropes" as his old man did, as the New York Times puts it. (Incidentally, how do you "learn the ropes" to being a dictator--do you go to tutorials in flogging innocents, preside over model high school purge trials, and the like?)

But might the young Eun turn out to be the country's Mikhail Gorbachev? Korea-expert Barbara Demnick observes in the Los Angeles Times that his ascension seems to be stirring up mild hopes in Korea that he'll prove a reformer. For one thing, he attended high school in Bern, Switzerland. For what's it worth, he's also obtained a physics degree in Pyongyang at the Kim Il Sung university, that famed academic institution known for churning out fine scholars. There is more to this man of mystery. Demnick reports,

Another North Korean living in China said she heard Kim Jong Eun had been living under cover for years in preparation for becoming leader.

"They say he was three years in the military in the toughest region of the country. He lived like everybody else; they didn't have much food. He saw the system from the inside and will help fix it," said Su Jong, 28, who comes from the outskirts of Pyongyang and left late last year. "I heard this from the wives of soldiers."

Of course the State Department, as assistant secretary of state Kurt M. Campbell says, is monitoring the situation "carefully" as "we trying to assess the meaning of what's going on there." Which means that the Obama administration is like everybody else. It doesn't have a clue. But maybe North Korea is simply trying the old Marxist tactic of accelerating history. Look at it this way: when's the last time a twenty-something had his finger on the nuclear button?