Kim Jong Il prepared to celebrate his 64th birthday amid the strains of the Rakhmaninov's Piano Concerto No 2 and the eternal classic March of Songun Victory performed by the central military band of the Defense Ministry of Russia on their visit to Pyongyang. Kim also basked in the near universal international media speculation as to which of his kids will succeed him.
And this made Kim smile.
First, by hanging with the Russians the night before his birthday he could aggravate the Chinese, and remind Beijing that North Korea, while certainly a neighbor and often a client, was not about to relinquish control over the six party talks and simply give in on the U.S. counterfeiting charges.
Second, by keeping any real plans for succession under wraps, Kim could keep international attention on himself, and stoke the sense of uncertainty that ensures Beijing and Seoul both see it in their best interest to protect the North Korean regime from potential military "adventurism" by the United States.
The succession talk is all the rage amongst us remaining (and some newly emerging) Pyongyangologists, as it is our holy grail; to be able to predict the future of the North Korean regime.
In some sense, it is not a hard process. There is a general agreement that Kim will pick a family member as his successor (this, of course, assumes that there is a conscious decision here, and that some wildcard uncle, brother-in-law or colonel doesn't simply step in a take power). There is also a general agreement that Kim has only three viable sons for the job. This makes the odds of an accurate guess pretty close to 33 percent.
Add in that the youngest son, Kim Jong Un, despite being reported as a mirror image of his dad (belly and bouffant included), is but a young 22, and therefore, although he wears the technicolor dreamcoat of a favorite younger son, little Kim is unlikely to supercede his brothers.
Now the odds are down to a much more even 50/50.
Here things get more interesting. On the one hand, there is the shame of the family, the carrier of the "Fat Bear" passport, Kim Jong Nam. In 2001, he apparently thought his future was secure, and when asked what he would do when he succeeded his father, he retorted "I'm going to Disney World." While the retort is only speculation, his 2001 deportation for Tokyo seems much more certain. Looking more like his (still respected) grandfather, Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Nam is the oldest of the possible successors, and therefore, dynastically speaking, should have been next in line. Current reports from "the experts" say Fat Bear has made up with daddy, and is back in the running.
The current favorite amongst the odds-makers, however, is middle child Kim Jong Chol, who, from the few existing photos (if they are really him) looks like he would be more at home on the DDR machine than running the DPRK. But "JC" was also rumored to have been at the table with his dad when the elder Kim hosted Chinese President Hu Jintao in 2005 in Pyongyang. There are mixed views on this dinnertime exposure (Kim was showing off his next in line, or Kim was showing the Chinese that he still controlled North Korea's political destiny), so the jury is still out, but that is what makes this so fun.
Now, between Fat Bear and JC, I would lean toward JC, but I am partial to middle children. And Kim Jong Il is clearly cognizant of all the international speculation over his kids, and may well be stoking speculation to keep everyone guessing. After all, he is the king of obfuscation, and ambiguity remains his best tool in the international arena.
So its 55 percent JC, 43 percent Fat Bear and 2 percent Little Kim. And plenty of percent chance that all of us "watchers" are being led on by interests inside and outside (or opposing) the regime.