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Likely new North Korean leader a mystery to many

Kim Jong-un has swiftly risen to power since being made a four-star general a year ago, but he is even more of an enigma than his late father was during 17 years of absolute power.

This handout picture released from North Korea official Korean Central News Agency on September 11, 2011 shows Kim Jong Un, son of Kim Jong Il inspecting the Mokran Video Company in Pyongyang.
This handout picture released from North Korea official Korean Central News Agency on September 11, 2011 shows Kim Jong Un, son of Kim Jong Il inspecting the Mokran Video Company in Pyongyang.

BEIJING // North Korea's heir apparent Kim Jong-un has swiftly risen to power since being made a four-star general a year ago, but he is even more of an enigma than his late father was during 17 years of absolute power.

Within hours of news breaking yesterday of leader Kim Jong-il's death over the weekend, the North's official Korean Central News Agency was reporting that the country, people and military "must faithfully revere respectable comrade Kim Jong Un."

The agency also referred to Mr Jongu-un as a "great successor" of the North's guiding philosophy of self reliance and a "distinguished leader of the military and people."

So far, Mr Jong-un, Kim Jong-il's third son, has a thin leadership record - much less than the 20 years Kim Jong-il spent being groomed for power before he took over in 1994.

Despite a vigorous political campaign to install Mr Jong-un as the new leader in the people's minds, he remains an enigma, even to those at home. It is unclear what direction he will take the nation of 24 million people, how much power will fall to the military and officials surrounding him, and what China's role will be with its ally.

The elder Kim unveiled Mr Jong-un as his successor a year ago, putting him in top posts. Over the past year, Mr Jong-un regularly accompanied his father on trips around the country. And Mr Jong-un steadily built his political clout by reportedly becoming involved in domestic and foreign policy and securing a position in the ruling Workers' Party.

North Koreans are told he graduated from Kim Il Sung Military University, speaks several foreign languages, including English, and is a whiz at computing and technology. However, his birth date, his marital status and even the name of his mother - said to be Kim Jong-il's late second wife, Ko Yong Hui - are all secrets.

"There is a rumour that he is married, but officially we don't know," said Yoon Deok-ryong, an expert in North Korean economic reform at the Korea Institute for International Economic Policy in Seoul.

Media in South Korea speculated that the four-star general orchestrated a deadly artillery attack on a front-line South Korean island last year that led to fears of war.

Because of his young age and inexperience, he might end up the figurehead for a government led by powerful, older relatives, Mr Yoon said.

"Even though Kim Jong Un has been appointed as the successor, they may form a committee to rule the country at first,"Mr Yoon said. "His power succession is not completed yet."

Another big question is whether Mr Jong-un will be able to secure the lasting support of Kim Jong-il's younger sister and her powerful husband, Jang Song Thaek.

A technocrat educated in Russia during Soviet times, Mr Jang was a rising star until he was summarily demoted in early 2004 in what analysts believe was a warning from Kim against gathering too much influence. But Kim put Mr Jang back at his side in 2006 and relied heavily on him after reportedly suffering a stroke in 2008.

John Delury, an assistant professor at Yonsei University's Graduate School of International Studies in South Korea, said Korean mourning traditions could require Mr Jong-un to play a more peripheral role for some time, making it difficult to tell whether he is being sidelined.

"The question will be what's the role of the uncle, Jang Song Thaek," said Delury. "There's been talk of some sort of regency, so it's very possible that a small, leading group will emerge with Kim Jong-un as the leading person but especially in the first couple years using the tradition of mourning to actually somewhat take a little bit of a back seat."

Mr Jong-un was unveiled to the world last year at a massive military parade marking the 65th anniversary of the ruling Workers' Party, saluting troops by his father's side in an appearance captured live by international media.

His emergence settled the question of which of Kim Jong-il's three known sons would succeed him as the third generation leader in a family dynasty that has ruled since North Korea's post Second World War inception in 1948.

His grandfather Kim Il-sung remains a revered figure 17 years after his death. Mr Jong-un appears to be modelling himself after his grandfather, down to his hairdo. Portraits of the young Kim Il-sung hanging on the walls of the Pyongyang office where the president founded the Workers' Party show the same look: a thick head of hair on top and shaved at the sides above the ear.

The most popular of the songs written to honour Mr Jong-un is called "Footsteps," an obvious reference to his role in carrying out his family's legacy.

Mr Jong-un is known to have studied for a few years in Switzerland, and is believed to speak English, German and French, though experts caution against thinking of him as reform-minded just because he lived in the West.

"I wouldn't draw huge conclusions from the fact that he spent a year or two in Europe as a boy," said Mr Delury. "But you know, he's significantly younger, and generational shifts happen no matter wherever you are in the world, including North Korea, so he is going to have a different orientation."