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Reports Say N. Korea's Kim Has Chosen Successor Son

North Korean leader Kim Jong-il (in light jacket) poses with scientists and technicians at a purported satellite-control center after in April.
North Korea's reclusive leader, Kim Jong Il, who himself inherited power from his father, appears to be paving the way for the man who is believed to be his youngest son to succeed him.

Reports that the North Korean leader has asked government bodies to pledge loyalty to Kim Jong Un have also led to speculation that recent nuclear and missile tests by Pyongyang were intended to help ensure a smooth transition of power.

Discussion of a possible successor to the authoritarian Kim increased after Korea watchers concluded that he suffered a stroke before disappearing from public life for an extended period last year.

Discussion of a possible successor to the authoritarian Kim increased after Korea watchers concluded that he suffered a stroke before disappearing from public life for an extended period last year.

South Korean newspapers quote unnamed members of that country's parliamentary intelligence committee who were briefed by the National Intelligence Service about Kim Jong Un's designation as heir.

The spy agency said it could not confirm the reports.

The "Dong-a Ilbo" newspaper reported that North Korea was teaching its people a song lauding Kim Jong Un as the new "Commander Kim," and that senior officials had been given "ideological training" justifying the hereditary succession.

AP has reported that South Korean opposition legislator Park Jie-won, a member of the parliament's intelligence committee, told local radio that lawmakers had been briefed by the South Korean government on the North's move. Park also said the regime is pledging allegiance to Kim Jong Un.

There are no clear signs that Kim intends to step down anytime soon, although information is in notoriously short supply in the secretive North.

Least-Known Brother

Patrick Koellner, acting director of the GIGA Institute of Asian Studies in Hamburg, Germany, tells RFE/RL that health issues could be behind the 67-year-old Kim Jong Il's reported effort to name a successor. He cites unconfirmed reports that Kim is suffering from diabetes in addition to complications from the stroke.

Little is known about the youngest of Kim Jong Il's three sons, who is said to be in his mid-20s. Kim Jong Un reportedly studied English, German, and French at a Swiss school and does not currently hold any key position in the North's power structure.

Koellner says a little bit more is known about his two older brothers, who "have sort of either fallen into disgrace in recent years or are judged incapable of taking over the reins in North Korea."

"In some sense it's perhaps more by default that power is going to be transferred -- if that's going to take place, we don't know yet -- to [Kom Jong Un]," Koellner says.

Yang Moo-jin, a professor of North Korean studies at Kyungnam University in Seoul, says Kim Jong Un is reported to have strong leadership skills. But in a society that values seniority, his youth could be a problem.

"There are various opinions about Kim Jong Un's character and capabilities," Yang says. "Some say he makes good judgments, has leadership, and is charismatic. Some others say that partly because he is the youngest son, he could be naive and not yet reliable."

Testy Backdrop

Reports of North Korea paving the way for the third leader in its history comes at a time of mounting regional and global tension over North Korea's May 25 nuclear test. They also come amid indications that Pyongyang could be preparing to test-fire medium- and long-range missiles.

Koellner is among observers who suggest the tests could be part of a campaign to build unity and support for a successor to Kim Jong Il.

"The nuclear test obviously provided some kind of either of smokescreen for the transition or actually rather a sort of window of opportunity in the sense that it enabled Kim Jong Il to cement ties with the military which are extremely important within North Korea's power structure," Koellner says. "And it really sort of smoothened possible power transfer in the family."

"Great Leader" Kim Il Sung named son Kim Jong Il as his eventual successor in 1974, and Kim Jong Il took power some 20 years later after his father died at the age of 82.

Kim Jong Il assumed the titles of grand secretary of the Workers' Party and chairman of the National Defense Commission, but did not assume the title of "state president," as his father was named "eternal president."

On the streets of the South Korean capital, Seoul, dozens of anti-North Korea protesters gathered and burned North Korean flags and photos of Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un.

"There isn't any other hereditary monarch like that on earth," said Park Chan-sung, a leader of an anti-North Korea protest group. "We should not ignore the fact that 22 million people in North Korea are suffering from Kim Jong Il's hereditary regime."

with additional agency reporting