We can speculate about the future in what is arguably the world's most secretive country, but we can never be sure that our guess has been proved right. The incumbent North Korean leader is now 68 years old, and ailing. Western observers have been predicting his "imminent" departure for the last five or six years, yet he remains.
In his speech at a recent Senate hearing, Kurt Campbell, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, described North Korea as a "black box" and lamented that American intelligence reports on the reclusive regime are often inaccurate. When asked by Senator John McCain whether the U.S. Administration expected Kim Jong-un to replace his father, Campbell quipped: "Your guess is as good as ours, Senator."
That said, however, some signs of change can be discerned on the North Korean horizon. On September 28, the ruling Workers' Party of Korea (WPK) is due to hold a national congress in Pyongyang. The last time the party held a conference on such a scale was exactly three decades ago. At its 1980 congress, then President Kim Il-sung officially presented his successor, Kim Jong-il. However he did not take over immediately. He only become North Korea's head of state on his father's death in 1994, having spent the preceding fourteen years working his way up the government ladder.
Kim Jong-il is likely to approach the succession issue just as his father once did. Even if he presents his son to the WPK gathering as his heir apparent later this month, the designated helmsman-in-waiting may spend years rising through the ranks.
Portraits of the heir apparent, Kim Jong-un, now 28-29 years of age, have print runs approaching the millions in Korea, and the country's army is being taught songs with lyrics celebrating the "glorious son."
The message Pyongyang authorities are trying to get across ahead of the landmark WPK congress is that the passage of power from father to son will protect North Korea from political upheavals like those that struck the USSR and China. Dynastic rule in fact seems surprisingly appealing. Not least because of the safeguards it offers against the trials and tribulations of a change of government.