North Korea's heir apparent, Kim Jong Un, largely an enigma
Published Monday, December 19, 2011 10:31PM EST
Last Updated Saturday, May 19, 2012 6:54AM EDT
Like so much about North Korea, the man expected to lead the country next, Kim Jong Un, is a mystery. So little is known about the younger Kim, both within his home country and by the outside world, even his age appears to be a state-guarded secret.
Since his father's death was announced Monday, North Korean state media has fallen short of calling Kim Jong Un the country's next leader. But they are making it clear that Kim Jong Il's son will succeed his father, lauding him as the "Great Successor," and "the outstanding leader of our party, army and people."
North Korea's official KCNA news agency said that while North Koreans from all walks of life were in utter despair over the death of their leader, they were finding comfort in the "absolute surety that the leadership of Comrade Kim Jong Un will lead and succeed the great task of revolutionary enterprise."
Much of what is known about the younger Kim has been gleaned in only the last three years, because before Kim Jong Il suffered what is believed to be a stroke in August 2008, he had never been seen in public before.
It's believed the new, chubby-faced leader is in his late 20s and was educated at an English-language school in Switzerland. He speaks some English, as well as some German and French, and is said to have a fondness for James Bond and Hollywood tough guy Jean-Claude Van Damme. He is rumoured to be married but there has never been any official word.
But what role Kim Jong Un has played in preparing to take over his country's leadership is unknown; there isn't even a record that he has served in his country's military.
Nevertheless, the country insists he graduated from Kim Il Sung Military University and in the fall of 2010, he was made a four-star general. That occurred during a meeting of the ruling Workers' Party -- the first time Jong Un had ever appeared publicly.
At that same meeting, he also received two key political posts — membership on the Central Committee of the party, and a vice chairmanship of the party's Central Military Committee, which had been overseen by his father.
The anointed heir was given the titles of "Young General" and "Great Comrade," and began appearing in public alongside his father as they toured North Korea's factories and military facilities and voted in elections.
Since then, the country has pushed forward an image of Jong Un as destined to follow in both his father's footsteps, and the footsteps of his grandfather, Kim Il Sung, who founded North Korea in 1948.
But Jong Un has not had the years of grooming for leadership that his own father enjoyed before he took over the impoverished country in 1994.
By then, Jong Il had a full two decades to prepare for leadership. He had even taken part in a number of military moves against the North's hated neighbour to the South, including masterminding a 1983 bombing that killed 17 South Korean officials visiting Burma, and the 1987 bombing of a Korean Air Flight that killed all 115 on board.
By contrast, Kim Jong Un has had but a handful of years to adjust. Nevertheless, state-run media have worked to build a cult of personality around Kim Jong Un, just as they did for his father.
Shortly after he was given the titles of "Young General" and "Great Comrade," Jong Un was credited with directing the surprise shelling of South Korea's Yeonpyeong Island last December.
It's not clear why Kim Jong Il chose his youngest son to succeed him, since he has two other sons. It's said that his eldest, Kim Jong-nam, lost any hope for power in 2001, when he embarrassed his father by trying to enter Japan with his family on fake passports for a trip to Japan's Disneyland.
His middle son, Kim Jong-chol, also attended school in Switzerland and was said to be a fan of Michael Jordan, Eric Clapton and Keanu Reeves. But his father reportedly dismissed his chances for leadership because he thought him too "girlish."
As Jong Un moves into his new role, he is expected to have the guardianship of his aunt, his father's only sister, Kim Kyong hui, 64. She was promoted to general in 2010, while her husband, Jang Song thaek, is seen as the country's unofficial No. 2 leader.
Jang was a rising star among the country's leadership until he was demoted by Jong Il as a strike against his perceived grasp at power. But Jong Il turned to him again after he became ill in 2008 and it is thought that Jang still wields plenty of power in Pyongyang.
It's possible that over the next few months or years, Jong Un might act as a figurehead for a government led by his older relatives, some analysts believe. How he will eventually transition out of that remains to be seen.