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The world's most inscrutable political dynasty may have just settled on an heir apparent. Reports say that North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Il, has picked his third son to succeed him.

NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Seoul.

ANTHONY KUHN: There are few countries left where a ruler can say he has the right to rule because his father and grandfather did. But Kim Jae-bum, professor emeritus at the Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security in Seoul says that's the prevailing logic in Pyongyang.

Professor KIM JAE-BUM (Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security, Seoul): This is a kind of inherited philosophy that the Great Leader founded the country and the party, and his son was an heir, so that the third generation has a kind of legitimacy.

KUHN: South Korean media today quoted lawmakers who had been briefed by intelligence officials. They said that following last week's nuclear test, Pyongyang ordered officials to pledge loyalty to Kim Jong Un, third son of the Dear Leader Kim Jong Il and grandson of the Great Leader Kim Il Sung. Professor Kim says the orders seem to be having an effect.

Prof. KIM: The military are very anxious about competing among themselves to show the loyalty to the family.

KUHN: So, why Kim Jong Un? Well, Kim Jong Il felt his eldest son was unreliable and his second son was too effeminate. We know about this thanks to Kenji Fujimoto, the pen name of a Japanese man who wrote a book about his stint as the Kims' personal sushi chef.

As you can see, North Korea leadership-watching is a murky business - full of unconfirmed reports and questionable sourcing. Anyway, Kim Jong Un is believed to have been educated in Switzerland, where he learned to ski and speak English, French and German. The problem, says Stanford University Korea's expert Daniel Sneider, is that the young Kim is still in his mid-20s and still too inexperienced compared to his father.

Professor DANIEL SNEIDER (Korea Expert, Stanford University): Kim Jong Il had a long period of time serving senior positions in the party apparatus, in the government apparatus, so, you know, he established his legitimacy as a successor over a period of time.

KUHN: But the elder Kim made arrangements for this in April, getting his son onto the National Defense Commission. This de facto ruling council includes Chang Sung-taek, Kim Jong Il's brother-in-law, who could serve as a regent until the young Kim matures. When Kim Jong Il suffered a stroke last summer, reports suggested that North Korea's government was in chaos. But nobody's suggesting that now, says Daniel Sneider.

Prof. SNEIDER: There's no evidence that anyone's defying his authority, and although there's a lot of talk about the military and the power of the military, it's very clearly subordinate to him. You know, as long as he's around, as long as he's able to exercise power, then he can control this process.

KUHN: Experts differ on the question of whether the succession issue is behind North Korea's recent spate of nuclear and missile tests.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Seoul.

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