Gerald Warner: We mock the North Korean pantomime at our peril

THE world's most secretive power bloc last week completed the tortuous process of determining the succession to its leadership, shrouded in mystery as the party's inner circle jockeyed for position in a hot-house atmosphere of factionalism, mutual loathing and fratricidal strife.

The outcome was that an unknown younger sibling leapfrogged over the expected heir to emerge as supreme leader. But enough about the Miliband soap opera - let us instead consider the situation in North Korea.

The pleasing congruency by which Ed Miliband and Kim Jong-un succeeded to the leadership of their respective parties within 48 hours of each other, both at the expense of elder brothers, is one of those entertaining coincidences that lighten the study of otherwise nightmarish political institutions. For institutions do not come more grotesque than the Kim dynasty of North Korea and the Korean Workers' Party that is its instrument of government. In this Asian psychodrama, the founding psycho was Kim Il-sung, the Communist guerrilla installed in North Korea as a Soviet puppet by Stalin.

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Modestly known as "The Great Leader", Kim Il-sung was an extraordinarily gifted individual who invented modern physics, the automobile and the electric toaster, besides walking on the Moon. Since it was widely known, at least in North Korea, that he created the dawn every day, his death in 1994 provoked fears of eternal night. This disaster was averted by Kim's son and heir Kim Jong-il, the Dear Leader. He is now ailing, so the dynasty moved last week to secure the succession for a third generation. Jong-il's eldest son Kim Jong-nam was thought unsuitable: he was disgraced after being arrested in Japan while travelling on a false passport in an attempt to visit Disneyland in Tokyo. The notion of anybody based in Pyongyang feeling the need to visit Disneyland is bewildering.

His next brother, Kim Jon-chul, was apparently being groomed for the succession when he was promoted to a senior party post in 2007, but he was pronounced too "girlish" to hold power. So, last Tuesday, the youngest brother Kim Jong-un, after being made a four-star general, was appointed vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission, the body that rules North Korea, and nominated to the Central Committee of the Korean Workers' Party. It is thought that when his father dies he will initially share power with his aunt, Kim Kyung-hee, who was simultaneously promoted to four-star general. Kim Jong-un is evidently a man of broad culture, since he is said to be a fan of Michael Jordan, Jackie Chan and Jean-Claude Van Damme.

Jong-un is criticised for his obesity, a condition which in North Korea is restricted to the Kim dynasty and the military.World Vision has calculated that in the 1990s the regime's Marxist agricultural policies killed two million North Koreans, with fresh graves being raided for flesh by starving people. Concentration camps have killed another 1.5 million. Women prisoners are tortured and sold as sex slaves; babies are either forcibly aborted or delivered and then smothered, or have their throats cut. These details will probably be familiar to you, because you will have seen them denounced on the many demonstrations against the regime organised by the professional protesters of the British left - will you not?

Any interpretation of the inner workings of the Pyongyang regime is necessarily largely speculative. The armed forces could field 5.8 million men if they invaded South Korea, bolstered by the largest stocks of chemical and biological weapons on the planet. In 2006 North Korea carried out a successful nuclear test and has continued to develop its nuclear capacity. In April 2009, much Western derision was directed against North Korea because of the supposed "failure" of its Taepodong-2 missile test. That mockery was misdirected: the missile's 2,000-mile flight was twice as long as any preceding effort and it impressed Pyongyang's ballistic missile customers in Iran, Syria and elsewhere.

The feebleness of Barack Obama's response both to that incident and the sinking of a South Korean naval vessel signalled the lack of Western political will to confront this aggressor regime. The West took refuge in the belief that China could rein in this errant Communist state. That is questionable. Mao's dictum that the relationship between China and North Korea was as close as "lips and teeth" no longer holds. China is wary of confronting Pyongyang, for fear of being publicly defied and losing face. The maverick regime continues to threaten South Korea, Japan, Singapore and US carrier groups in adjacent waters. Next month's G20 summit in Seoul could well provoke an act of aggression from Pyongyang, encouraged by proven Western impotence and eager to assert its reinvigoration by the newly secured succession of the third generation of what is now an undisguised hereditary monarchy.