Vincent Yu, File, Associated Press
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 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."
The agency 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. Over the past year, Jong Un regularly accompanied his father on trips around the country. And 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 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.
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, 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," 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."
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