One photo shows a chubby-cheeked boy with an impish grin. Former classmates at a Swiss boarding school describe a shy student who loved basketball and Jean-Claude Van Damme. Recent reports describe him as overweight and a heavy drinker.
Now 26, Kim Jong Un has reportedly been tapped to become the next leader of nuclear-armed North Korea.
The youngest son of authoritarian leader Kim Jong Il, he appears to have led a cloistered life, pulled back home after his Swiss schooldays and kept out of the limelight.
But he's already being hailed as "our Commander Kim," and North Koreans are busy learning the lyrics to a new song praising him as the next leader of the world's first communist dynasty, South Korea's Dong-a Ilbo newspaper said Tuesday.
South Korea's spy agency told lawmakers the Pyongyang regime has begun "pledging its allegiance to Kim Jong Un," legislator Park Jie-won said Tuesday. The Hankook Ilbo newspaper said the announcement was made after North Korea's provocative underground nuclear test last week.
The National Intelligence Service refused to confirm the reports.
A time of mounting tensions
The apparent anointment comes at a time of mounting tensions over the May 25 nuclear test and North Korea's April 5 rocket launch. The North also appears to be preparing to test-fire an array of medium- and long-range missiles, reports said. Global powers are discussing how to rein in Pyongyang for its nuclear defiance.
Analysts say the saber-rattling is part of a campaign to build unity and support for a successor to the 67-year-old Kim Jong Il, who reportedly suffered a stroke last August and looked gaunt and markedly grayer in an April appearance at parliament.
Kim is believed to want to name a successor by 2012 — the centenary of the birth of his father, North Korea's founder, Kim Il Sung — and the regime undertook a massive campaign last year to gear up for the celebrations.
The regime stepped up the pace last month, launching a "150-day battle" urging North Koreans to work harder to build the country's economy.
"Before 2012, North Korea must convince the army and the public that Jong Un is the best successor," said Atsuhito Isozaki, assistant professor of North Korean politics at Tokyo's private Keio University. "To pave the way for Jong Un's leadership, it is highly likely that North Korea will turn recent nuclear and missile tests into his achievements."
Campaign set to culminate in October
Analyst Cheong Seong-chang of the Sejong Institute think tank outside Seoul noted the "politically driven" 150-day campaign is set to culminate in early October. He said North Korea could hold a national convention then — its first in nearly 30 years — to formally announce Kim's successor.
In the 1970s, Kim Il Sung, known as the "Great Leader," arranged for his son to take credit for a "70-day battle" before he was tapped as his father's successor, Cheong said. Kim Jong Il — the "Dear Leader" — formally assumed leadership upon his father's death in 1994.
Kim Duk-hong, a high-profile defector from North Korea who witnessed the "70-day battle," said such campaigns are designed to strengthen the leader's totalitarian rule and lay the groundwork for a transfer of power.
For years, Kim Jong Il's eldest son Jong Nam, 38, was considered the favorite to succeed his father until he was caught trying to enter Japan on a fake passport in 2001, reportedly to visit the Disney resort.
Kim considers the middle son, Jong Chol, too effeminate, according to the leader's former sushi chef.
Jong Un, however, is the "spitting image" of his father and the leader's favorite, the chef, who goes by the pen name Kenji Fujimoto, wrote in a 2003 memoir.
Only one with military background
Jong Un reportedly is the only one of the sons with a military background, key in a regime run on a "songun," or "military first," policy, said Paik Hak-soon of the Sejong Institute.
His uncle, Jang Song Thaek, a member of the all-powerful National Defense Commission with strong military and political connections, will likely guide and advise him, he said, noting that Jang is in charge of North Korean intelligence, and has political control of the prosecutor's office, the police and the courts.
"He is everything in providing power to Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un in carrying out the succession," Paik said.
However, Kim Duk-hong, the defector, refused to believe the succession claims. Kim, who served on the Central Committee of the ruling Workers' Party for 16 years before fleeing North Korea in 1997, said Kim Il Sung laid out three criteria for the leader: the successor must share his bloodline, serve on the Central Committee and achieve a high-ranking government position.
He said only the middle son qualifies. "Jong Chol is the only person who has had a key position on the party's Central Committee," he told The Associated Press in an interview.
Little is known about Kim Jong Un. Unlike his eldest brother, who is closely trailed by the media during gambling trips to Macau, Jong Un has made few public forays overseas since his Switzerland days.
'Discretion is really important'
The one photo purportedly showing him as a boy cannot be verified, and there are no known images of Jong Un as an adult.
He studied at the International School of Bern in Switzerland in the late 1990s, reportedly registered under the pseudonym Chol Pak.
Susanna Schranz, a spokeswoman for the private school, which enrolls students ages 3-19, refused to comment, noting that for some parents, "discretion is really important."
Heidi Uetz, a former German teacher, recalled that there were two North Korean students at the school then, one of them named Chol Pak.
Gordon Adler, an ex-director, said he never knew the boy's real name.
"The only time I met him was the day he came in and he was signed up," he said. "The boy didn't say a word. When they signed him up, they used a different name. I guess it was a clever move by them."
A Swiss news magazine, L'Hebdo, reported earlier this year that classmates recalled him as timid and introverted but an avid skier, basketball player and fan of NBA star Michael Jordan. He was humble and willing to step in to break up schoolyard fights, a former school director told the magazine.
Picked up by car every day
A car arrived every day after school to pick him up, the report said; classmates and school officials assumed he was the driver's son.
Jong Un was ordered to avoid going out, South Korea's Yonhap news agency reported. When he did leave home to get a bite to eat, the North Korean ambassador accompanied him, the report said.
After returning to Pyongyang, he attended the Kim Il Sung Military University, graduating in 2007, Yonhap said. Unnamed sources described him as ambitious and "aggressive, shrewd and capricious."
But there are rumors the 2004 death of his mother, Japanese-born former dancer Ko Yong Hi, took a toll on the young man, Yonhap said.
A diminutive 5-foot-6, he drank heavily after her death from cancer and ballooned to nearly 200 pounds, and is now suffering from high blood pressure and diabetes, the report said.
The reclusive communist country was showing other signs of belligerence. Reports say that over the past several days the North has strengthened its defenses and conducted amphibious assault exercises along its western shore that could be preparations for skirmishes at sea.
South Korea has deployed a guided-missile high-speed boat to the area to "frustrate North Korea's naval provocation intentions and destroy the enemy at the scene in case of provocations," the navy said in a statement.
The ship has guided missiles that can strike enemy vessels 87 miles away, a 76mm gun and a 40mm cannon as well as a sophisticated radar system. South Korea is also sending coast guard ships to escort fishing boats near the western sea island of Yeonpyeong.
Speculation was growing that last Monday's underground nuclear test and subsequent missile launches were related to a power shift in North Korea. On Tuesday, South Korean media and an opposition lawmaker said 67-year-old Kim Jong Il's youngest son, Jong Un, 26, has been picked to be the next leader.
The announcement to North Korea's ruling party, government and military officials came after the nuclear test, South Korean newspapers Hankook Ilbo and Dong-a Ilbo reported.
Range of up to 4,000 miles
The long-range missile being prepared could be timed to coincide with a June 16 summit in Washington between South Korean President Lee Myung-bak and President Barack Obama.
The missile is believed to have a range of up to 4,000 miles, the JoongAng Ilbo newspaper reported, citing an unnamed South Korean official. That would put Alaska and the Pacific island of Guam, which has major U.S. military assets, within range.
Satellite images indicated the North had transported the missile to the new Dongchang-ni facility near China and could be ready to be fired in the next week or so, Yonhap reported.
A U.S. official confirmed the Yonhap report and said the missile was moved by train, although he did not comment on where it was moved to, and said it could be more than a week before Pyongyang was ready to launch. He spoke on condition of anonymity because the issue involved intelligence.
On Tuesday, Seoul's Chosun Ilbo newspaper reported that the North could have manufactured up to four other long-range missiles.
U.N. mulls punitive action
The U.N. Security Council was considering punitive action for the May 25 nuclear test. U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice said Monday that key powers were making progress on a new U.N. resolution that will almost certainly expand sanctions against North Korea for conducting a second nuclear test in defiance of the Security Council. It had conducted one in 2006.
But, complicating the situation, a trial was set to begin Thursday in Pyongyang of two American journalists, Laura Ling and Euna Lee, accused of entering the country illegally and engaging in "hostile acts."
Yonhap said Tuesday that North Korea has also moved a South Korean worker detained just north of the border in March to the nation's capital.
The Koreas ended their three-year war in 1953 with a truce, but North Korea said last week it would no longer abide by its conditions. It also disputes the U.N.-drawn western sea border, around which deadly clashes with South Korea occurred in 1999 and 2002.
No incidents have been reported in the Demilitarized Zone that separates the two Koreas, and life seemed normal on the North Korean side of the Yalu River, which marks the country's border with China.