SEOUL The youngest son of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il will be weak, vulnerable and at the mercy of the old guard for years to come under a stage-managed succession taking place in the hermit state.
In fact, it is the youth and inexperience of Kim Jong-un, 25, that makes him the most appealing candidate to next wear the crown for the Kim family dynasty that has ruled the country since it was founded more than 60 years ago.
"The youngest child is seen as the most manageable," said Suh Jae-jean, president of the Korea Institute for National Unification, the South's top think tank for inter-Korean affairs.
"For a period of time, he will be used as a puppet leader."
The Swiss-educated Jong-un is regarded as the most capable of Kim's three known sons, but analysts believe the untested heir will not be in a position to challenge the close circle of senior leaders near Kim Jong-il as he is being groomed, or if he has to take over in the event his father dies suddenly.
The succession process is in its early stages, with orders being given to high-ranking military officers and ruling Workers' Party officials that they should regard Jong-un as the next leader, South Korean government officials have said.
To raise his profile, Jong-un may be visiting some key parts of the ruling system such as the National Defense Commission, the seat of power in North Korea, one intelligence source said.
North Korea places great emphasis on seniority and the ruling elite around Kim Jong-il, mostly men in their 70s and 80s, are not about to take orders from his youngest son, the source said.
However, their fate depends on preserving the Kim dynasty and they will need to protect Jong-un to maintain their positions.
Suh said he could foresee a time when Jong-un leads a new generation of cadres who are now in the 40s and 50s after the old guard has died.
CULT OF PERSONALITY
Kim Jong-il, 67 and thought to have suffered a stroke last year that raised questions over his grip on power, in April elevated his brother-in-law, Jang Song-thaek, to the National Defense Commission in a move analysts saw as signaling he would serve as a caretaker while the successor gains experience.
South Korean government officials may know little about Jong-un, but most North Koreans probably have no idea whether Kim Jong-il has children and can be thrown in prison if they try to discuss the subject of his family.
Although North Koreans would be willing to accept succession within the Kim family, Jong-un faces a long struggle to rise from obscurity and build a personality cult of his own, analysts said.
Kim Jong-il was anointed successor by his father and state founder Kim Il-sung in 1974. His rise was managed carefully for 20 years before he took over in 1994 when his father died. Even then, it took him at least two years to secure the leadership position.
NO OTHER WAY
For now, Kim Jong-il is likely in good health and his grip on power strong, South Korean Unification Minister Hyun In-taek told Reuters this week.
He said the North's recent saber rattling, which included a nuclear test on May 25, was linked to Kim's need to consolidate power and through that secure the eventual succession of Jong-un.
"The identity of the successor is not all that important because that person is doomed to follow the same policies and ideologies as those used by the Kim Jong-il regime," said B.R. Myers, an expert on the North's ideology at South Korea's Dongseo University.
Those ideologies, which include putting the military first and rallying nationalistic forces to build support for the North's leaders, justify its existence, Myers added.
The next big step is waiting to see if Kim Jong-il or state media says Jong-un will take over, analysts said. They believe that the widespread reporting abroad on the coming succession has probably filtered into North Korea.
Some analysts speculate the announcement may not come until 2012, the 100th anniversary of Kim Il-sung's birth and designated by the state as a year that will mark a turning point in building what the North calls "a great and prosperous nation." Kim Jong-il's death before then would complicate such plans.
(Additional reporting by Jack Kim, Editing by Dean Yates)