Skip to main content
mark mackinnon

A TV grab sourced from South Korean TV station KBS and released on February 12, 2009 shows an image which the station identified as Kim Jong-un, the third son of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, at the age of 11. KBS said, this picture was from Kenji Fujimoto of Japan, who said he was a cook for Kim Jong-il for 13 years in North Korea. Kim Jong-un is currently 25 years old.NEWSIS

The young man who looks set to inherit control of a nuclear-armed state is an avid skier and a fan of retired basketball player Michael Jordan and movies starring Jean-Claude Van Damme. Word around the Korean Peninsula is that Kim Jong-un, the youngest son of North Korean Leader Kim Jong-il, like is father, is a heavy drinker.

No one outside the fanatically secretive regime in Pyongyang professes to know much more than that, and there are no known photographs of Jong-un as an adult. But now, at the age of either 25 or 26, the little-known son of one of the most bizarre leaders in modern history looks set to rise to the seat of power.

According to two South Korean newspapers, citing information from the country's National Intelligence Service, the elder Mr. Kim anointed Jong-un his successor last week, making his decision known to North Korea's military leaders and parliamentarians shortly after the country carried out its second-ever nuclear test. North Korean diplomats abroad were also reportedly informed of the decision, and the Dong-a daily newspaper reported that North Koreans were already learning new songs praising their future leader, "General Kim."

The reports come amid speculation over the health of the 67-year-old Mr. Kim, who has only been seen once in public since reportedly suffering one or more strokes last fall.

Jong-un, the youngest of Mr. Kim's three sons, has long been considered his father's favourite. The eldest, 38-year-old Jong-nam, was on track to inherit power until 2001, when he disgraced himself by trying to sneak into Japan on a false passport to visit Tokyo Disneyland. The middle child, 28-year-old Jong-chul, is said to be detested by his father as too effeminate.

"The older brother, Jong-chul, had the warm heart of a girl," wrote Kenji Fujimoto, a Japanese national who spent more than a decade as Mr. Kim's personal sushi chef. "The younger prince, Jong-un, was a boy of inner strength."

In Mr. Fujimoto's book, I was Kim Jong-il's Cook , he predicted that "if power is to be handed over, then Jong-un is the best for it. He has superb physical gifts, is a big drinker and never admits defeat."

Jong-un is the son of Mr. Kim's third wife, Ko Young Hee, a Japanese-born dancer who died in 2004 of breast cancer. Living under the pseudonym Pak Chol, Jong-un is believed to have studied at the International School of Berne, in Switzerland, where he learned English, French and German before returning home to study at the Kim Il-sung Military Academy, which is named after his grandfather, North Korea's first ruler.

The Swiss school is a favourite of the diplomatic community. According to the June 3 edition of L'Hebdo, a Swiss newsweekly magazine, Kim Jong-un's schoolmates had the impression he was the son of one of the drivers at the North Korean embassy. He was there only a few years and left at the age of 15, in 1998, without taking the baccalaureate exam that is given before graduation in Grade 12.

The magazine quoted Ron Schwartz, a Canadian who was a student at the same time, as saying they were both on the basketball and swimming teams. "He was a shy and introverted young man, but he liked team sports. He was a fan of Michael Jordan and Jean-Claude Van Damme."

The magazine also quoted a former director of the school, David Gatley, who ran it from 1993 to 2004. "He wasn't a show off, and he often would get involved in separating two friends who were fighting. He had a lot of friends among the children of American diplomats. He went on school trips. He once went to Eastern Europe on a trip organized by the drama department. We had a lot of trouble getting him a visa."

Mr. Gatley said Kim Jong-un spoke fairly good English, although "sometimes he had to search for a word."

L'Hebdo also quoted a former classmate of Kim Jong-un, although not by name, as saying there was always a bodyguard nearby. Mr. Schwartz also was cited as saying he remembered a North Korean, older than the others in the class, who would shadow Kim Jong-un as he played sports and went to class. Mr. Schwartz told the magazine that only one other student apparently knew the real identity of Chol Pak. That student, from Japan, "knew that he was connected to someone very highly placed in the North Korean government."

If Jong-un is being groomed to take over, it's expected he'll do so under the mentorship his uncle, Jang Song-taek, who is believed to have ran the country during Mr. Kim's illness. It has been reported that Mr. Jang, Mr. Kim's brother-in-law, has been granted wide powers in exchange for backing Jong-un's rise.

"If this a family dynasty, we're going back to traditional Asian feudal politics," said Wenran Jiang, a senior fellow at the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada. "It's not unusual for a young prince to be sheltered by a senior family member who takes the young prince under his wing."

Jong-un's rise seems set to be far faster than that of his father, who spent 14 years asserting his control over first the Workers' Party of Korea and then the military before assuming the leadership when his own father died in 1994. Jong-un was reportedly promoted to the rank of general earlier this year and made a member of the all-powerful National Defence Commission, but he may not have the time to build up the same support base that his father enjoyed when he assumed office.

That, some observers say, just might explain North Korea's behaviour in recent weeks and months, which has been belligerent and unpredictable even by the frequently bewildering standards set by Mr. Kim's regime.

In Kim Jong-il's recent appearance, the man referred to as Dear Leader looked dramatically thinner and frailer than before his suspected illness, leading to suggestions that the surge in North Korean military activity in recent weeks and months was aimed less at impressing Pyongyang's neighbours than at bolstering patriotism and support for the regime at home ahead of a potentially delicate transfer of power.

Tensions between North and South Korea continued to rise Tuesday amid signs Pyongyang was preparing to test-fire a mid-range missile, which would be the sixth such launch since last week. Meanwhile, the South Korean Navy announced it was deploying a missile patrol boat to the Yellow Sea to counter manoeuvres being staged by North Korean warships near the disputed sea boundary between the two countries.

"This is a very different pattern than we've seen in past North Korean brinksmanship," said Paul Evans, a professor in the Liu Institute for Global Issues at the University of British Columbia. "There must be internal turbulence around succession issues."

Mr. Kim's 15 years as leader of North Korea have been bleak times for the country, with millions of dollars poured into the military and the nuclear weapons program while most of the country's 23 million people lack food and electricity.

Mr. Fujimoto's description of the heir apparent, then, would not inspire much hope among the country's suffering citizens. "He's a chip off the old block," he wrote of Jong-un. "A spitting image of his father in terms of face, body shape and personality."

With a report from Susan Sachs in Paris, special to The Globe and Mail