North Korea: What does Kim Jong-il's heir apparent look like?

Rare new photos have emerged of Kim Jong-il's son, Kim Jong-un.The leader of North Korea may be getting ready to hand over power to his youngest son, who watches NBA basketball and went to school in Switzerland.

Korean Central News Agency via Korea News Service/AP
North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, center, visits a chemical plant in South Pyongan province, North Korea, June 5. The leader may be getting ready to hand over power to his youngest son, Kim Jong-un.

The heir apparent to power in North Korea is gradually springing to life in photographs that give a vivid impression of his school days in Switzerland.

Twenty-seven-year-old Kim Jong-un remains an enigma to all but his father, North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, and a power elite in Pyongyang. But Yonhap, the South Korean news agency, has released pictures that purport to show him when he was just a kid at the International School in Bern, mingling with classmates and watching NBA basketball games in his spare time.

There he is, with other schoolchildren in what Yonhap says “looks to be a schoolyard,” according to a Yonhap report from Geneva, and there he again, grinning, his arms draped around someone “who appeared to be a classmate.”

Yonhap has come up with some of the first pictures at a time when Kim Jong-il's youngest son appears clearly on a trajectory to power. In the latest turn in his climb to the heights, an uncle, Jang Song-thaek, married to his father’s younger sister, was named vice chairman of the all-powerful National Defense Commission on Monday. Kim Jong-il, of course, is commission chairman.

The betting is that Kim Jong-il wants Kim Jong-un, who’s already a leading – if not the leading – figure in the ruling Workers’ Party, to be ready to take over in less than two years from now. That’s when North Korea will be in a paroxysm of national celebrations surrounding the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kim Jong-il’s father, the long-ruling Kim Il-sung, who was born on April 15, 1912 and died on July 8, 1994.

The photos provide a glimmering into the existence of one whose picture has never shown up in the North Korean media. A Japanese newspaper, Mainichi Shimbun, in April identified a young man photographed beside Kim Jong-il at a steel complex as Kim Jong-un, but there was no confirmation.

The Mainichi Shimbun article credited Kim Jong-un with organizing a gigantic fireworks display marking his grandfather’s 98th birthday in April as “the Day of the Sun.”

Kim Jong-il appears to be in a rush to shore up any succession. The last thing he’s believed to want is for his senior generals to form a power clique concealed behind the throne. Instead, in case Kim Jong-il dies or is incapacitated, Mr. Jang, as defense commission vice chairman, would be in line to serve as a kind of regent while the youthful Kim Jong-un assumes the top job, at least to appearances. The North Korean leader is believed to have suffered a stroke nearly two years ago, and reportedly has other health problems

Yonhap also came up with photos of two of Kim Jong-un’s siblings, all born to his father’s third wife, Ko Yong-hui. She died six years ago.

There’s “a plumpish girl,” says Yonhap, “smiling while facing the camera.” And there’s Kim Jong-un’s older brother, Kim Jong-chol, who is believed to have judged too "effeminate" for power by Kim Jong-il. Their older half-brother, Kim Jong-nam, who’s been leading a playboy life in the Chinese gambling enclave of Macao, lost out in the power game after Japanese immigration officials stopped him entering the country in 2001 on a phony Dominican Republic passport.

Although no one outside the inner circle in Pyongyang is certain what Kim Jong-un looks like today, Yonhap says he’s “been described as resembling his father the most in appearance and temperament.”


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