To provide for the regime’s future, Kim Il-sung made the myth that gave him personal legitimation also the basis of a new dynasty. He probably feared, as Lankov speculates, being rushed off the stage by his designated successor in the way that, for example, Lin Biao had recently been accused of doing to Mao in China. The only person unlikely to be tempted to overthrow him was his son, whose own survival would depend on the robustness of his father’s myth. The younger Kim’s birth year was altered from 1941 to 1942 to rhyme with his father’s birth year of 1912. His official birthplace was moved from its actual location in Siberia, where the Korean Communists were hiding out during the war, to a mythical secret revolutionary military camp on the snow-capped sacred Mount Paektu inside Japanese-occupied Korea. And the story of his youth was retroactively packed with demonstrations of resoluteness and virtue.
As the end of his own life approached, Kim Jong-il in turn needed to find a successor among his three male offspring. (He also had four daughters, who today occupy posts of varying responsibility in the regime.)
That left Jong-un, born in 1984, although his official birthday has been adjusted to 1982 to continue the mystical parallelism with his grandfather’s and father’s birth years. Jong-un was not academically talented, and during his secondary education at a private school in Switzerland he is said to have been obsessed with basketball and other sports. But he was short-tempered and domineering, characteristics suitable for inheriting a dictatorship. In 2009, word appeared that a “new genius of leadership had emerged from within the ancient lands of Korea.”
Kim moved to consolidate support among the general public by retaining but mildly softening the regime’s society-wide system of layered deprivation. This has been examined in a pair of invaluable reports by Robert Collins, who describes how the songbun, or class status, system of North Korea “subdivides the population of the country into 51 categories or ranks of trustworthiness and loyalty to the Kim family and North Korean state.” These categories are grouped in turn into three broad castes: the core, the wavering, and the hostile classes, representing about 25 percent, 55 percent, and 20 percent of the population, respectively.