PYONGYANG, North Korea — Whatever you do, don't ask a North Korean who will lead the nation after Kim Jong Il.
Succession is a taboo subject here, as are Kim's three sons, their names, ages and whereabouts. Questions about any of these topics are met with averted eyes or uncomfortable silence.
"Please don't ask about the Dear Leader's family. It's a secret," implored Bang Yu Gyong, a 20-year-old English major who is sufficiently well connected that she once danced with the North Korean leader at a party. ("One of the happiest days of my life," she said.) As for who will succeed Kim, she said, it is simply not discussed because "nobody thinks about it."
But there's no denying the obvious: Kim is 64 -- two years older than his father, Kim Il Sung, was in 1974 when he designated his son as his successor to lead this communist nation. The younger Kim was elevated to a key post in the Politburo, and his photograph started appearing side by side with his father's. By the time Kim Il Sung died 20 years later, Kim Jong Il was already the de facto ruler, ensuring a seamless transition despite the near-collapse of the economy.
This year, Kim signaled that he would like the dynasty to extend to a third generation. He was quoted in a state-run radio report in January as saying that his father wanted the tasks of running the nation to be "carried out by my son and grandson."
Adding to speculation that he was getting ready to anoint one of his sons, Kim purged his powerful brother-in-law from a key position in the ruling Workers' Party last year, thus eliminating a possible rival.
In recent months, speculation has revolved around Kim's second son, 24-year-old Kim Jong Chol, who according to a report last week in the German magazine Der Spiegel accompanied his father last month to a dinner with visiting Chinese President Hu Jintao.
North Koreans pay serious attention to anniversaries, so many analysts had expected an announcement during massive nationwide celebrations marking the 60th anniversary of the Workers' Party last month. Russia's Itar-Tass news service, one of the few foreign agencies with a bureau here in North Korea's capital, had cited North Korean officials as saying an announcement would be forthcoming.
When that did not happen, North Korea watchers interpreted it as a sign that Kim wasn't sufficiently confident of his grip on power to pass on his legacy.
"I think when you look at things years hence, people will point to October 2005 as the time he couldn't name a successor," said a Western diplomat in the region.
Kim's designation of a successor may be complicated by his messy personal life. He is believed to have at least three sons and two daughters from three different mothers. (In keeping with North Korea's Confucian ethos, the daughters are not considered possible successors, although one, 31-year-old Kim Sol Song, is reported to be an economist who sometimes accompanies her father on trips.)
Kim's first son, Kim Jong Nam, was born in 1971 out of a liaison with an actress, Song Hye Rim. Although he is the eldest, his prospects to take over his father's post are believed to have dimmed after his humiliating arrest in 2001 at Japan's Narita airport, when he was caught traveling with a fake passport along with two female companions and his 4-year-old son. He told authorities he wanted to take the boy to Tokyo Disneyland.
Others say Kim Jong Nam may already have fallen from grace by then, because several of his mother's relatives defected and wrote tell-all memoirs.
Further complicating Kim Jong Nam's hopes of ascending to power, his mother suffered severe mental illness and died in Moscow in 2002. He has lived abroad for many years and is now believed to spend most of his time in China.
In recent years, the eldest son has been eclipsed by the younger two, Kim Jong Chol and Kim Jong Woon, 22. Their mother was Ko Yong Hui, a former dancer with whom the dictator had a 25-year relationship and to whom he may have been married.
The younger sons are little known to the outside world. The only public glimpse was in 1994, when Jong Chol, then a skinny, curly haired 13-year-old, was photographed outside the International School of Berne, Switzerland. He had been attending the school under a false name.
Two years ago, somebody by the name of Paek Se Bong was appointed to a key post on the National Defense Commission, and many North Korea-watchers believe Paek is a pseudonym for Kim Jong Chol. (Se Bong means "New Peak," which could be significant; when Kim Jong Il was first designated as heir, he was referred to not by name but as the "Party Center.")
Another report said Jong Chol's portrait was hung in September in the Workers' Party Politburo.
But Kim Jong Il's former sushi chef, Kenji Fujimoto, wrote in a memoir that the leader considered Jong Chol "too girly" and favored his youngest son, whom he believed to be more masculine.