This undated file image is believed to show North Korean leader's son, Kim Jong Un, in the Swiss city of Berne. North Korea has been making posters and badges with pictures of the youngest son of ailing leader Kim Jong Il as it builds up a personality cult around the likely successor.
North Korea celebrated its 62nd anniversary Thursday amid preparations for a rare political conference that could give clues to the future ruler of the secretive "Hermit Kingdom."
Speculation in South Korea and among Western analysts has been rampant that North Korean leader Kim Jong Il — 69 and thought to be in poor health — may use the occasion to bestow key political and military jobs on one of his sons, as part of a strategy to make the young man heir apparent to the authoritarian state and its nuclear arsenal.
His name is Kim Jong Un, and what the world knows about him is barely enough to start a Facebook page. That makes it virtually impossible to assess how, as a potential leader, he might address issues like North Korea's dire economy and its nuclear aspirations.
In fact, little is known about him in North Korea and among Western analysts who have devoted careers to studying the secretive country.
Kim Jong Un is the elder Kim's third and youngest son. But even his date of birth is uncertain. His birthday is variously given as Jan. 8, 1982 or 1983, which would make him 27 or 28.
Analysts believe he is Kim Jong Il's son by his third wife (or consort — their marital status is unclear), a dancer named Ko Hyong Hui.
There are a couple of photos in circulation that purport to show Kim Jong Un as an 11-year-old and as a teenager. Their authenticity hasn't been confirmed, but they date from a time when he reportedly attended the English-language International School of Berne in Switzerland.
He reportedly was disguised as the son of a North Korean embassy employee while in Berne, attending the school under a fake name. Former classmates have said he liked skiing and basketball, and idolized hoops star Michael Jordan and action-movie muscleman Jean-Claude Van Damme.
This undated picture, released from Korean Central News Agency on June 19, 2010, shows North Korean leader Kim Jong Il (in sunglasses) inspecting a factory.
This undated picture, released from Korean Central News Agency on June 19, 2010, shows North Korean leader Kim Jong Il (in sunglasses) inspecting a factory. AFP/Getty Images
He is believed to have completed his studies at Kim Il Sung Military University, named for his grandfather, who ruled the country from its founding in 1948 until his death in 1994.
Reports in the South Korean media have described the grownup Kim Jong Un as medium height — about 5-foot-9 — and pudgy and that he may suffer from diabetes, like his father.
Ordinary North Koreans apparently know little more about him than outsiders do. His name has never been published in the country's state-run news media, according to Korea watcher Ken Gause, an analyst at the research group CNA.
Gause says Kim Jong Un is known to North Koreans mainly through propaganda campaigns that have been conducted throughout the country. Like his grandfather, the "Great Leader," and his father, the "Dear Leader," Kim Jong Un has been given a sobriquet, "Brilliant Comrade," and a song has been composed to praise him.
Sushi Chef Tells All
Much of what is known to outsiders about Kim Jong Un and his family comes from a 2003 memoir penned by a Japanese man who claims to have been Kim Jong Il's personal sushi chef.
The book, I Was Kim Jong Il's Cook, by Kenji Fujimoto (a pseudonym), describes Kim Jong Un as having a take-charge personality "exactly like his father."
Kim Jong Il's eldest son, Kim Jong Nam, was originally thought to have been favored to succeed him, but he fell from grace in 2001 when he was caught trying to enter Japan on a forged passport, reportedly on his way to Tokyo Disneyland.
Fujimoto's book says Kim Jong Il felt that his second son, Kim Jong Chul, was effeminate and unsuited to lead, so he began the process of advancing his youngest son.
Korea watchers are particularly interested in the Workers' Party conference because they think it could demonstrate how Kim Jong Un is progressing in the process of potential succession.
Gause says the conference could be an opportunity to put Kim Jong Un in key positions, such the secretary of organizational affairs, "probably the most powerful position in the party apparatus, other than the general secretary, because he vets the people for key party jobs."
It's Who You Know
Gause says that would give Kim Jong Un the power to fill important posts with his own allies. He adds that it would also be advantageous for Kim Jong Un to hold a top job in the National Defense Council, which controls North Korea's military.
If so, Kim Jong Il would be replicating the process that began his own rise to power. His father, Kim Il Sung, promoted him to key jobs at a party congress in 1980.
Soon after, North Korea's state-run news media began referring to him as the "Dear Leader." When Kim Il Sung died, Kim Jong Il already controlled many of the functions of the government and was able to move into his place.
"A lot of people thought [Kim Jong Il] wouldn't survive after his father died, but he did," says Charles Armstrong, director of the Center for Korean Research at Columbia University.
Armstrong says that is because Kim Jong Il had nearly 14 years to establish himself in positions of power while his father was still alive.
The question of who will be next in line to rule the secretive communist state became critical two years ago, when reports surfaced that Kim Jong Il was undergoing a health crisis after suffering a stroke.
Recent photos distributed by the North Korean government show Kim Jong Il — or someone who looks like him — paying visits to factories and military bases, in an apparent effort to show that he is once again in health and in charge.
But Armstrong says that if Kim Jong Un is named to top positions in the near future, it may mean that concerns about his father's health are speeding up the process.
If any results of the meeting are made public, Gause says analysts may be able to see if key positions have gone to people connected directly to Kim Jong Il, or to patronage networks connected to Kim's brother in law, Jang Song Taek.
Jang is a powerful figure widely seen as likely to fill a regent-like or mentoring role for Kim Jong Un — unless, of course, he decides to go after the supreme leadership for himself. That could trigger a potentially chaotic struggle for power.