Kim Jong Il's aides were standing around a billiard table in the game room of one of the Dear Leader's villas outside Pyongyang. It was a formal occasion: they were going to meet Kim's sons, including the one who would one day succeed him as head of what is probably the world's most despotic regime. Kim Jong Un was dressed in a military uniform. When his father entered the room, he snapped to attention and, along with his elder brother, gave the old man a crisp salute.
It was 1990. Kim Jong Un, now the new leader of North Korea, was 7 years old.
North Korea is a cocktail of poisonous elements: autocratic, repressive, isolated and poor. It is a place where not even an iota of freedom is imaginable. Its regime is dangerous not only to its people but also to the rest of the world. North Korea, notes South Korean scholar Cheong Seong-chang, is "a Stalinist monarchy" where bloodlines, and only bloodlines, determine who the next dictator will be--no matter how young or inexperienced that person may be.
Nearly 30,000 U.S. troops sit across the border, helping defend the North's prosperous, democratic brethren in the South against a 1.2 million-member army, most of it arrayed within 30 miles (50 km) of the demilitarized zone. Over the past decade, despite crippling economic sanctions imposed by most of the outside world, North Korea has defiantly developed and tested nuclear weapons and the long-range missiles needed to deliver them. Western intelligence agencies estimate that Pyongyang possesses eight to 12 nuclear weapons. The hard truth is that North Korea is Asia's last remaining Cold War trip wire.
This is the country now ostensibly helmed by young Kim Jong Un, just 29 by most accounts, the grandson of Kim Il Sung, the founder of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) and the creator of its core ideology: juche, or self-reliance. In Korean, Kim Il Sung was called Suryong (Great Leader), a virtually godlike figure. When he died in 1994, his eldest son, Kim Jong Il, then 52, continued the dynasty. With Kim Jong Il's death last December at age 69, it is Kim Jong Un's turn.
He is in the world's spotlight. When China's Twitter equivalent, Weibo, lit up recently with unfounded rumors that Kim Jong Un had been assassinated, the posts went viral. On Feb. 13 came some real news about North Korea: the U.S. State Department announced that Washington and Pyongyang would resume face-to-face talks in Beijing on Feb. 23 in an attempt to get Pyongyang to rejoin the long-stalled six-party talks on disarming North Korea. (The other stakeholders are South Korea, Japan, China and Russia.) These talks no doubt were a prominent point of discussion during Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping's recent visit to Washington. Resumption was in the air even before Kim Jong Il died, but the talks have taken on a different, greater significance, offering outsiders a tantalizing first view into the evolving power structures of North Korea under Kim Jong Un. Now Pyongyang says it first wants 300,000 tons of food aid--North Korea has been afflicted by serial famines--before proceeding. Yet in agreeing to the Beijing meeting so soon after the Dear Leader's death, Pyongyang is signaling that Kim Jong Un will follow his father and carry out what North Korea experts in Seoul call the regime's "dynastic policies."