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Mystery surrounds dictator's third son

Associated Press - December 20, 2011

Alexa Olesen, 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 on Monday 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."

It also referred to Jong-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, 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 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 Jong-un as his successor a year ago, putting him in top posts. In the past year, Jong-un regularly accompanied his father on trips around the country and 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, 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 rumor 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. South Korean media speculated that the four-star general had a hand in a deadly artillery attack on a front-line South Korean island last year that led to fears of war.

Due to his young age and inexperience, he might end up the figurehead for a regime led by powerful, older relatives, Yoon said. "Even though Kim Jong-un has been appointed as the successor, they may form a committee to rule the country at first," Yoon said. "His power succession is not completed yet."

Another big question is whether 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, 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 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 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," Delury said. "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."

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-World War II inception in 1948.

His grandfather Kim Il-sung remains a revered figure 17 years after his death. Jong-un appears to be modeling 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.

Narushige Michishita, an expert at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo, said Jong-un's leadership could bring instability.

Recent opportunities for North Koreans to use the Internet and cellphones, he said, have been allowed by "relatively young policymakers" in Jong-un's generation.

"Those people will be running the country in coming decades," Michishita said. "So in that sense we can expect some new things, but we don't know if that will result in political transformation."

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