North Korean leader Kim Jong Il's youngest son has reportedly been named to the powerful National Defense Commission, an appointment analysts said Sunday indicates the 26-year-old is being groomed to take power amid tension over the country's nuclear programs.
Who will become the next leader of the reclusive communist nation has been the focus of intense media attention since Kim, 67, reportedly suffered a stroke last summer and had brain surgery.
Kim, who has ruled the nuclear-armed North with absolute authority since his father Kim Il Sung's death in 1994, has three known sons by two women but has not publicly anointed any of them as his heir.
On Sunday, South Korea's Yonhap news agency reported Kim's youngest son, Kim Jong Un, was assigned to a low-level post at the defense commission, several days before the country's rubber-stamp parliament reappointed his father as the commission's chairman on April 9.
Top government body
Yonhap, citing unidentified sources it says are privy to North Korea affairs, said the appointment was seen as the third son having embarked on his training as successor, saying he is expected to assume the commission's higher-level posts step by step.
Under North Korea's Constitution, the defense commission is the top government body and Kim Jong Il has ruled the country in his capacity as its chairman. He also is the top official in the powerful Workers' Party and supreme commander of the army.
South Korea's Unification Ministry and the National Intelligence Service said they cannot confirm the report. North Korea watchers in the South, however, noted that Kim Jong Un is known as his father's favorite son and said that the commission post could be a step toward his becoming the next leader.
Cheong Seong-chang, a senior analyst at the security think tank Sejong Institute, said that Kim Jong Il's health problems would speed up his naming an heir and that he favors Jong Un because he resembles his father the most.
Cheong said Kim Jong Il believes Jong Un has "charismatic leadership" like him, which the leader believes is necessary to resolve many pending issues such as tension with the U.S. over the North's nuclear and missile programs.
Studied in Switzerland
Little is known about Kim Jong Un except that he studied at the International School of Bern in Switzerland. Kim Jong Il's former sushi chef says in a 2003 memoir that the son looks and acts just like his father and is the leader's favorite.
Kenji Fujimoto also says Kim Jong Il considers the second son — Jong Chol — as "girlish." Kim's eldest son — 37-year-old Jong Nam — had also reportedly fell out of his father's favor after being caught using a fake Dominican passport to get to Tokyo Disneyland in 2001.
Yoo Ho-yeol, a North Korea expert at Korea University, also noted that Kim Jong Un could gradually use his influence at the country's highest body, saying he has been emerging as a strong candidate for the next North Korean leader.
However, other analysts including Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies, disagreed, saying Kim Jong Il probably will not name a successor anytime soon.
Yang said Kim is believed to be focusing more on consolidating his support base after being reappointed the country's top leader, rather than appointing his successor, which would quickly erode Kim's power and "worsen his health condition."
Remains in charge
At this month's closely watched parliamentary session, Kim Jong Il looked thinner and grayer and was limping slightly. It was Kim's first major public appearance since his reported stroke but proved that he remains in charge.
Kim's communist regime has been grappling for years with the U.S. and its allies, which have been pressuring Pyongyang to give up its nuclear and missile development programs. The standoff has intensified following the North's April 5 launch of a rocket that it claims to be a satellite but regional powers argue was a test of the country's advanced missile technology.
The U.N. condemned the launch and imposed new sanctions on three North Korean companies. In response, the North pledged to boycott six-nation nuclear talks, expelled international nuclear monitors from its main nuclear complex and reactivated its nuclear facilities to harvest plutonium for atomic weapons.