LIANE HANSEN, Host:
NPR's Mike Shuster has more.
MIKE SHUSTER: It is reasonably certain that the name of Kim Jong-Il's third son is Kim Jong-un. Confirming facts about him after that starts to get pretty tough, says David Kang, a Korea watcher at the University of Southern California.
DAVID KANG: We know very little, even people who watch very closely - we don't even know his age.
SHUSTER: Best guess, 27. But not a single Western diplomat or journalist or specialist has met him. And the secrecy is not limited to the outside world, says David Straub, a long-time Korea specialist at the State Department, now with the Korea Studies Department at Stanford University.
DAVID STRAUB: Kim Jong-un has not even been announced in North Korea. I don't they've ever mentioned him publicly in North Korea, much less published photographs of him. So it's not a surprise that we outside North Korea would not know much about him.
SHUSTER: Why do we know so little about North Korea?
EVANS REVERE: Ah. One answer to that is that this is the way the North Koreans prefer it.
SHUSTER: It's a way for Kim Jong-il and his cronies to play the weak hand they've been left with two decades after the end of the Cold War, says Revere.
REVERE: They are a weak country. They are obviously a country that is very fearful about their circumstances and their surroundings and their adversaries. And one of the few cards that they can play to some effect is what I call the mystery card: Keeping us and others in the dark about their intentions, their system. And it, in effect, makes them a bit stronger.
SHUSTER: There is plenty of speculation. But be mindful of who is doing the speculating, says David Straub.
STRAUB: Almost everyone who talks about North Korea has a very big ax to grind. From intelligence services to defectors groups, people have agendas. And it's very unclear who knows what about which issues.
SHUSTER: And so a person is going to assume leadership eventually in North Korea, about whom virtually nothing is known, says Evans Revere.
REVERE: And this person is going to take over the leadership of this country and engage the rest of the world - including, of course, the United States and South Korea and China - on all of the contentious issues that have been at the heart of our relationship with the North. And yet, here we are having a conversation about how little we know about him, and their system and how things work there.
SHUSTER: Mike Shuster, NPR News.
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