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Profile: Kim Jong-un

After years of speculation on who would succeed the ageing North Korean leader, the third and youngest known son could receive the official seal of approval this week.

It is believed that Kim Jong-il will use a rare conference of the ruling Workers' Party as a means to pave the way for his son to eventually take power.

The meeting, which began on Tuesday, is the biggest ruling party meeting in 30 years. The last such meeting marked the start of Kim's own succession.

But who exactly is Kim Jong-un, a man who until now has had no public profile in his own country?

His father may be famous for his secrecy, but even less is known about Kim Jong-un. He has kept a more discreet profile than his two elder brothers, a factor which appears to have helped encourage his prospects as his father's successor.

Leadership skills

Kenji Fujimoto, a former personal chef for Kim Jong-il, wrote in a book that Jong-un is the son who most resembles his father. Fujimoto and other sources report him to be his father's favourite, and that he shows the strongest leadership skills of the three sons.

Indeed, Kim Jong-il's eldest son was deported from Japan in 2001, and the middle son is considered to be too feminine.

Still, the would-be successor lacks anything like the personality cult that has been created around his "Dear Leader" father. And while Jong-un's grandfather, Kim Il-sung, has a God-like status in the nation, the youngest Kim has never been mentioned in the media - until he was promoted to become a general in the country's powerful military.

His grandfather may have died in 1994, but is officially still president. His own heir, current leader Kim Jong-il, was well-known and lauded as a revolutionary hero by the nation's press for decades before he took power.

Jong-un's grooming, however, has occurred largely behind the scenes.

In 2006, badges with his face were reportedly distributed among senior North Korean officials. A year later, South Korean media reported that he was to be working in one of the departments responsible for monitoring members of the party and military.

Most recently, North Korea's military has named Jong-un, along with Jong-il, as its candidates to the conference under way, the Chosun Ilbo reported.

The South Korean daily wrote that while only Kim Jong-il's election was publicly known, "Kim Jong-un's election as a delegate is widely known among executives of the North Korean People's Army".

Military backing is considered essential by many commentators to ensuring a smooth succession.

Early life

Kim Jong-un is believed to have been born on January 8, 1984. His mother Ko Yong-hui, or Ko Young-hee, was a performer in a leading North Korean dance troupe. It is unclear whether Ko, who died in 2004, was Kim Jong-il's official wife or mistress.

Jong-un attended an international school in Switzerland, where he studied English, German and French. He is believed to have graduated in 1998. He later returned to North Korea and studied military science at Kim Il-sung Military University between 2002 and 2006.

Given his youth, inexperience and lack of recognition among North Koreans, any power transfer is likely to be gradual. This was also the case for Kim Jong-il, who was officially designated as successor in 1980 but did not formally take power until three years after the 1994 death of his father.

The promotion of Jang Song-taek, Kim Jong-il’s brother-in-law to the powerful National Defence Commission, was interpreted by many analysts as an attempt to position Jang in a caretaker role.

For now, no government issued photograph of Jong-un as an adult exists. Soon, however, his portrait may be hanging alongside that of his father and grandfather.

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