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Empire of the grandson

The chubby features of the 29-year-old Kim Jong-un are starting to materialise in Pyongyang after his sudden promotion to the role of "Great Successor". In the gift shop at my hotel, a stamp depicts him enjoying a laugh with his late father, Kim Jong-il. Until January, Kim Jong-il was the youngster in similar images, beaming alongside North Korea's Suryong ("Great Leader"), Kim Il-sung. And if the stamp is an indicator, it is not just the generations that have been inverted but time itself. Even allowing for genetics, the boy is well nigh a clone of his granddad.

In October 2010, while Kim Jong-un was still heir apparent, some South Korean newspapers cheekily suggested that he'd had plastic surgery, better to resemble his Suryong grandfather. If true, then Kim's nip and tuck emphasises how much North Korea remains the obverse of the west, where the aged endure the scalpel hoping to resemble their grandchildren better.

Pyongyang is now alive with the splutter of jackhammers and cranes loom across the skyline. The government plans to house an extra 100,000 people here this year. Compared to my last visit eight years ago, there are undoubtedly more private cars on the streets: Japanese, South Korean and European.

It is even possible to see locals with mobile phones, provided as part of a $400m joint venture with the Egyptian telecoms conglomerate Orascom in 2008. Like radios, televisions and computers, however, they cannot pick up information from abroad.

And old habits die hard here. Much of the construction work is going towards erecting monuments ahead of the centenary of Kim Il-sung's birth in April. As befits Great Leaders, the Roman calendar was long ago discarded in favour of one that begins in 1912.

As North Korea enters the second century, however, the Great Successor would do well to watch out for signs of apostasy. The state security apparatus remains fearsome, Amnesty International estimating that at least 200,000 people are languishing in the kwan-li-so, North Korea's network of penal labour camps. But circumscribing the internet or mobile-phone usage cannot erase what North Koreans living near the Chinese border can see with their own eyes.

Millions died in a famine during the late 1990s, now spun as "the Great Arduous March", as if it were a Calvary or Exodus that tested and vindicated the mettle of the North Korean people.

Yet approaching the border town of Sinuiju, farmers atop bullock carts can see the tower blocks of Dandong, a bustling industrial Chinese city of three million, on the horizon.

Lil' Kim

Last year, Kim Jong-il was unnerved enough by the Arab revolts to order about 200 expatriate North Koreans in Libya not to return home. The Korean People's Army is 1.2 million-strong and it is suspected that the nation's true rulers are its generals. The Suryong did inspire devotion and older North Koreans recall the latter half of his 46-year rule as a time of reliable harvests and electricity.

Facelift or not, his grandson would be an effective figurehead in uncertain times. But whoever is in power in Pyongyang might remember this: resurrected messiahs attract doubting Thomases. Even in a state as controlling as North Korea, their numbers are bound to be increasing.

This article first appeared in the 02 April 2012 issue of the New Statesman, France is my enemy