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By Graham Earnshaw, Reuters

PYONGYANG, Dec 1, Reuter – Kim Jong-il, the son of President Kim Il-sung, appears to have a firm grip on the political succession in spite of widespread reports of a power struggle, according to foreign sources in North Korea.

There is little information on the top leadership in North Korea, one of the world’s most secretive countries, and speculation has been intense in the past two weeks following false reports that President Kim, 74, had been assassinated.

Another factor has been the disappearance of the third-most powerful man in the hierarchy, Defence Minister O Jin-u, who is widely reported to have been injured in a traffic accident in September.

Some foreign sources said they believed the president’s son to be at odds with the 76-year-old O and other, older members of the leadership.

“There is no power struggle as such but strong tensions began emerging last year,” one foreign resident told Western reporters paying a rare visit to Pyongyang.

The sources said Kim Jong-il, 44, and younger army officers wanted to move North Korea closer to the Soviet Union and away from China in order to obtain more economic assistance and military aid from Moscow.

“Kim Jong-il is openly contemptuous of the Chinese but this is not true of the older generation of leaders,” one source said.

The son’s rise to power in the past few years has coincided with increasing warmth between North Korea and the Soviet Union on all fronts, and a perceptible cooling of the traditionally close ties between Pyongyang and Peking.

The sources said North Korea is facing problems in many areas. Its economy is outdated and inefficient, its foreign debt is large and its isolation is becoming more pronounced as it loses the diplomatic tug-of-war with South Korea.

Kim junior, referred to by all North Korean officials as “The Dear Leader”, is now in control of all domestic affairs but his father, called “The Great Leader”, still retains control over foreign affairs, they said.

The younger Kim rarely appears in public, almost never meets foreign visitors and has a private life that is almost entirely shrouded in mystery.

He is believed to be married but it is not known whether he has children.

Some foreigners predicted major changes in the offing for this tightly-sealed society as outside influences, including insidious consumerism, slowly creep in.

“They really used to believe the party propaganda that this was paradise and the rest of the world was hell,” said one European businessman with long experience in North Korea.

“But now some of them are beginning to see that it is not quite like that,” he added.

“I think this is a system on its way to drastic changes in the next two to five years.” REUTER NNNN

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