The youngest son of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il has taken charge at the country's spy agency to prepare him to inherit the leadership of the communist nation from his father, a news report said Wednesday.
Kim told senior officials of the State Security Department in March to "uphold" his 26-year-old third son, Kim Jong Un, as head of the agency, while doling out foreign-made luxury cars to the officials as gifts, Seoul's Dong-a Ilbo newspaper reported.
Kim told the officials to "safeguard comrade Kim Jong Un with (your) lives as you did for me in the past," according to the mass-market daily that cited an unidentified source. The five cars given to them were worth some $80,000 each, the paper said.
It also said the younger Kim has overseen the handling of two U.S. journalists detained in March while on a reporting trip to the China-North Korea border. The reporters were sentenced to 12 years of hard labor earlier this month for illegal border crossing and hostile acts.
South Korea's main spy agency, the National Intelligence Service, said it could not confirm the report.
Backbone of harsh rule
Pyongyang's State Security Department is the backbone of Kim's harsh rule over the totalitarian nation. It keeps a close watch over government agencies, the military and ordinary people for any signs of dissent. It also engages in spy missions abroad.
The move to put Kim Jong Un in charge of the agency illustrates the elder Kim's concern about any possible backlash that the father-to-son succession could prompt, the Dong-a said. It said the North plans to bolster the agency by putting the country's 100,000-strong border-guarding force under its arm.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Ian Kelly told reporters that Mats Foyer, Sweden's ambassador in North Korea, visited the reporters — Euna Lee and Laura Ling — in Pyongyang on Tuesday. Sweden serves as the U.S.'s protecting power in North Korea.
Foyer has been in "constant contact" with the North, pressing for access, Kelly said. He said the U.S. was "pursuing many different avenues" to secure their release, but he would not elaborate.
Who will eventually rule the nuclear-armed North has been the focus of intense media speculation since leader Kim, 67, reportedly suffered a stroke last summer. That sparked regional concerns about instability and a possible power struggle if he died without naming a successor.
The succession talk has further intensified after Seoul's spy agency reported to lawmakers early this month that the regime in Pyongyang notified its diplomatic missions and government agencies that Kim Jong Un will be the next leader.
Seoul's JoongAng Ilbo newspaper reported earlier this month that he had been given the title of "Brilliant Comrade," another sign that the regime was preparing to name him as successor.
Japan's Mainichi newspaper reported over the weekend that Jong Un is working as the acting chairman of the nation's National Defense Commission, supporting his father, who is chairman of the commission, the country's highest post.
Kim Jong Il inherited North Korea after his father and founding leader Kim Il Sung died in 1994.
'Victory because the bloodline'
On Tuesday, the North's main Rodong Sinmun newspaper carried a remark by Kim Jong Il that could be seen as a justification of the father-to-son succession.
"Our revolution is winning victory after victory because the bloodline" of the country's self-reliance ideology has been succeeded through generations, Kim was quoted as saying last month.
Kim Jong Il has two other known sons. The eldest one, 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, 28, too effeminate, according to the leader's former sushi chef.
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