SEOUL Hidden from even the North Korean public, the youngest son of leader Kim Jong-il has for months been the focus of speculation that he will next lead the impoverished state.
South Korean media reported on Thursday that Kim Jong-un was accompanying his father on a visit to China ahead of a rare meeting next month of the North Korea's Workers' Party, which rubber stamps major policy decisions.
The meeting, the first of its kind in more than 40 years, is expected to elect a new leadership, likely giving the junior Kim an official party role and formally initiate the grooming for succession.
Swiss-educated Jong-un, thought to be 26 and whose name in Chinese characters translates as "righteous cloud," is the youngest of Kim's three known sons.
He is thought to speak English and German, and bears a striking resemblance to his father, informed sources have been quoted in local media as saying.
South Korea's defense minister has said the North's recent military moves were aimed at helping Kim Jong-il, 68, pave the way for succession after questions of his leadership were raised when he was thought to have suffered a stroke in 2008.
The most frequently viewed photograph of Jong-un was of him as an 11-year-old. A Japanese daily has published a photograph of him when he was 16, but his exact age remains unclear. He was born either in late 1983 or early 1984.
There is a question too over whether his late mother, a Japanese-born professional dancer called Ko Yong-hui, was Kim Jong-il's official wife or mistress -- an issue that might weigh on his legitimacy to replace his father.
CLOAK OF SECRECY
Even by intensely secretive North Korean standards, remarkably little is known about the son, whose youth is also a potential problem in a society that values seniority.
Kim Jong-il was very publicly named heir by his father, Kim Il-sung, but he has studiously avoided repeating the process.
None of his three sons are mentioned in state media, much of whose efforts are focused on eulogizing the current leader and his father who died in 1994 and is the eternal president.
After taking over, Kim Jong-il has seen his state's economy grow weaker and a famine in the late 1990s kill about one million of his people, while he has advocated a military first policy.
In a book about his time as chef to the ruling household, Kenji Fujimoto of Japan said that of the three sons, the youngest Kim most resembles his father.
He is also reported to have a ruthless streak and the strongest leadership skills of the three. And, perhaps more importantly, he is thought to be his father's favorite.
Park Syung-je, a Seoul-based analyst with the Asia Strategy Institute, said he believed Kim junior had the backing of Jang Song-taek, effectively the country's number 2 leader.
Kim Jong-il this year promoted Jang, his brother-in-law, to the powerful National Defense Commission, which many analysts took to be an attempt to establish a mechanism for the eventual transfer of power, with Jang as kingmaker.
South Korean media have speculated that Kim Jong-un may also suffer diabetes, something that is thought to have long plagued his father.
(Additional reporting by Seoul bureau staff; Editing by Jeremy Laurence and Jonathan Thatcher)
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