Kim Jong Il seems to be moving quickly to pick a successor as questions swirl about how much time he has left to rule the country, while recovering from a stroke that he reportedly suffered last August and struggling with other illness.
North Korea is giving no hints about succession, but the rapid-fire moves to show off the North's military strength, notably the underground test of a nuclear device on May 25, are believed to be timed to demonstrate Kim Jong Il's power despite his physical weakness.
North Korea this week is reported to be moving a long-range missile to a site on the west coast for a test similar to the one conducted from the east coast on April 25.
"The background to the nuclear and missile thing is, you have a dying monarch who doesn't have an established successor," says Nicholas Eberstadt, a political economist at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. He adds, "you'd think he would want all his succession ducks lined up in a row."
Questions over succession reports
Analysts look askance, however, at the definitive nature of the South Korean reports on Kim Jong Il's selection of his youngest son. Although he may be a better choice than his two older brothers, his inexperience raises questions about who would really be in charge.
"It looks like Dad has toyed with the idea of all the boys," says Mr. Eberstadt, author of numerous studies on North Korea, but, he asks, "What evidence do we have?"
Kim Jong Un is not at the center of the ruling Workers' Party and is not a member of the Supreme People's Assembly, the legislative body that rubber-stamps all Kim Jong Il's decisions, Eberstadt notes.
Nor is he a member of the National Defense Commission, though he recently assumed the title of "inspector" of the armed forces, and he has had a minor government post.
Still, South Korean media are giving credence to a briefing by the National Intelligence Service to South Korean National Assembly members from the opposition party, normally extremely critical of government policy.
Major newspapers also report the same speculation, none of it formally confirmed on the record by the South Korean government.
"The designation of the successor was passed down to North Korea's Workers Party, the Supreme People's Assembly, and military right after the North carried out a nuclear test last week," according to the conservative Chosun Ilbo, South Korea's biggest-selling newspaper, citing simply "several intelligence sources."
The same reports say mid-level party, government, and military officials were notified for the first time that Kim Jong Il had "apparently made the choice early this year," says Chosun Ilbo.
The article suggests that "high-level officials in North Korea" were "confidentially notified of the decision" before word filtered down the ranks.
A song to praise Kim Jong Un?
Park Jie Won, former top aide of Kim Dae Jung, the former South Korean president who initiated the South's Sunshine policy of reconciliation with North Korea, said National Intelligence Service officials had told him North Korean officials are now "pledging allegiance" to Kim Jong Un. Mr. Park, now a member of the National Assembly, helped arrange for Kim Dae-jung's summit with Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang in June 2000.
North Koreans reportedly are referring to Kim Jong Un as "Commander Kim," and learning a new song written in his praise similar to songs written for his father, Kim Jong Il, and grandfather, Kim Il Sung, who ruled the North from the end of World War II, through the Korean War, until his death in July 1994.
The adulation for Kim Jong Un strikes some observers as extremely strange, considering that the young man was educated in a school in Bern, Switzerland (where he learned English, German, and French), is a fan of the National Basketball Association, and has nothing in his background to recommend him to leadership, aside from his father's love.
Kim Jong Il's concern about his health appears to be the driving factor behind his concerns about succession, as well as his military and diplomatic moves.
"North Koreans are consolidating behind Kim Jong Il's power," says Kim Tae-woo. "Of course they will be thinking about succession."
A favorite, perhaps by default
Kim Tae-woo wonders, however, if reports of Kim Jong Un's rise are premature. "I don't believe it even though Kim Jong Il could be a favorite son of his father. Frankly, I am confused."
Kim Jong Un has long been rumored as his father's favorite, almost by default.
His oldest brother, 38-year-old Kim Jong Nam, is considered a playboy – and his image was badly tarnished when he was detained at Japan's Narita Airport eight years ago attempting to enter the country on a fake Dominican passport.
He was sent home to North Korea after explaining to Japanese immigration authorities that he had wanted to visit Disneyland with his family.
And middle-brother Kim Jong Chol has long since been written off by his father as appearing too feminine in manner, according to Kim Jong Il's former sushi chef, Kenji Fujimoto, whose book, published six years ago after he returned to Japan, remains one of the few sources on life in Kim Jong Il's inner circle.
Bruce Klinger, senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, says he takes "all these stories" about a successor to Kim Jong Il "with a grain of salt," but believes, "Whoever is the leader, it will be a collective leadership."
Within the ruling family, Kim Jong Il's brother-in-law, Jang Song-thaek, appears to wield the most power after Kim himself.
Mr. Jang, the brother of the late Ko Yong-hi, third wife of Kim Jong Il and mother of Kim Jong Il's two younger sons, was named a member of the National Defense Commission, the center of power of North Korea, shortly after the missile test on April 5.
Ms. Ko is believed to have worked feverishly on behalf of her sons and her brother before her death five years ago. Kim Jong Un has not been seen in a photograph since he was 11 years old, but is reported to resemble his father physically, meaning he is somewhat overweight.
He also is reported to suffer from a diagnosis of diabetes, like his father, and to have been in a car accident last summer – an event that sped up concerns about succession to power.
Kim Jong Il wields his power mainly through his post as chairman of the defense commission, and has often promoted his "military first" policy. Near or at the apex, however, are a number of generals who may be waiting to assert their own power after Kim Jong Il's death.
Whoever takes over, analysts are not optimistic about a sudden softening of North Korea's tough outlook toward South Korea – or the rest of the world.
"The policy will not change," says Mr. Klinger. Nor would Kim Jong Un's rise "have inherent legitimacy," he says, in view of "the dynasty aspect" – another reason why generals might assert themselves behind the cover of the ruling family.