(Reuters) - Japanese news media said North Korea could issue an important announcement soon that might concern the health of leader Kim Jong-il.
Diplomats say they believe Kim, 66, recently suffered a stroke but latest news report suggest he maintains his grip on power in Asia's only communist dynasty.
Following are profiles of some possible successors to the reclusive leader, who intelligence sources have said suffers from diabetes and heart problems.
THE THREE SONS
Jong-chol, the second oldest of Kim's three known sons, is believed to be 27. Educated in Switzerland, he is thought to suffer from a hormonal disorder but is considered the favorite to succeed his father. Despite Jong-chol's lack of any formal grooming for the top job, one North Korea expert said he had been accompanying his father on official trips around the country.
Jong-nam, 37, is the oldest son but many believe he fell from grace after trying to enter Japan with a forged passport.
The youngest son, Jong-un, born in 1983, is often cited as the most promising but is seen as unlikely to be picked in a society where the tradition of seniority is so strong.
Jang Song-taek, 62, is married to Kim's sister and a ruling Workers' Party official who appeared to lose favor some years ago in a power struggle with reformers. More recently, though, he returned to the inner leadership circle and is often seen as the second most powerful man after Kim in the ruling party structure, though he officially holds only a relatively low rank.
HEAD OF STATE
Kim Yong-nam, 80, is head of the North Korean parliament's leadership council and the country's nominal head of state. While a long-time loyal party member and a former foreign minister, he is not thought to have the legitimacy rooted in the North's revolutionary history, seen as necessary to become leader. If he did succeed Kim, it would likely be as a figurehead.
Jo Myong-rok is head of the powerful Political Department of the North's army and Kim's number two in the National Defense Commission. But he, too, is believed to be in poor health.
A 2006 report by the South's intelligence agency named another general, O Kuk-ryol, as a younger and more likely successor to Kim's military post. The report said he appeared to be a reliable figure who is familiar with South Korea.
General Hyon Chol-hae, 74, deputy director of the political division of the Korean People's Army, is frequently at Kim's side when he visits military units for his field guidance tours, leading analysts to believe he is a trusted aide.
(Reporting by Jack Kim, editing by Roger Crabb)