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Mystery surrounds son set to succeed Kim

North Korea’s mercurial leader KimJong Il made clear he wanted to pass on rule to his son KimJong Un (right in photo at right.

Kyodo/Reuters/File 2010

North Korea’s mercurial leader Kim Jong Il made clear he wanted to pass on rule to his son Kim Jong Un (at right).

BEIJING (AP) — North Korea’s heir apparent Kim Jong Un has swiftly risen to power since being made a four-star general a year ago, but he is even more of an enigma than his late father was during 17 years of absolute power.

Within hours of news breaking today of leader Kim Jong Il’s death over the weekend, the North’s official Korean Central News Agency was reporting that the country, people and military ‘‘must faithfully revere respectable comrade Kim Jong Un.’’

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The agency also referred to Jong Un as a ‘‘great successor’’ of the North’s guiding philosophy of self reliance and a ‘‘distinguished leader of the military and people.’’

So far, Jong Un, Kim Jong Il’s third son, has a thin leadership record — much less than the 20 years Kim Jong Il spent being groomed for power before he took over in 1994.

Despite a vigorous political campaign to install Jong Un as the new leader in the people’s minds, he remains an enigma, even to those at home. It is unclear what direction he will take the nation of 24 million people, how much power will fall to the military and officials surrounding him, and what China’s role will be with its ally.

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The elder Kim unveiled Jong Un as his successor a year ago, putting him in top posts. Over the past year, Jong Un regularly accompanied his father on trips around the country. And Jong Un steadily built his political clout by reportedly becoming involved in domestic and foreign policy and securing a position in the ruling Workers’ Party.

North Koreans are told he graduated from Kim Il Sung Military University, speaks several foreign languages, including English, and is a whiz at computing and technology. However, his birth date, his marital status and even the name of his mother — said to be Kim Jong Il’s late second wife, Ko Yong Hui — are all secrets.

‘‘There is a rumor that he is married, but officially we don’t know,’’ said Yoon Deok-ryong, an expert in North Korean economic reform at the Korea Institute for International Economic Policy in Seoul.

Media in South Korea speculated that the four-star general orchestrated a deadly artillery attack on a front-line South Korean island last year that led to fears of war.

Because of his young age and inexperience, he might end up the figurehead for a government led by powerful, older relatives, Yoon said.

‘‘Even though Kim Jong Un has been appointed as the successor, they may form a committee to rule the country at first,’’ Yoon said. ‘‘His power succession is not completed yet.’’

Another big question is whether Jong Un will be able to secure the lasting support of Kim Jong Il’s younger sister and her powerful husband, Jang Song Thaek.

A technocrat educated in Russia during Soviet times, Jang was a rising star until he was summarily demoted in early 2004 in what analysts believe was a warning from Kim against gathering too much influence. But Kim put Jang back at his side in 2006 and relied heavily on him after reportedly suffering a stroke in 2008.

John Delury, an assistant professor at Yonsei University’s Graduate School of International Studies in South Korea, said Korean mourning traditions could require Jong Un to play a more peripheral role for some time, making it difficult to tell whether he is being sidelined.

‘‘The question will be what’s the role of the uncle, Jang Song Thaek,’’ said Delury. ‘‘There’s been talk of some sort of regency, so it’s very possible that a small, leading group will emerge with Kim Jong Un as the leading person but especially in the first couple years using the tradition of mourning to actually somewhat take a little bit of a back seat.’’

Jong Un was unveiled to the world last year at a massive military parade marking the 65th anniversary of the ruling Workers’ Party, saluting troops by his father’s side in an appearance captured live by international media.

His emergence settled the question of which of Kim Jong Il’s three known sons would succeed him as the third generation leader in a family dynasty that has ruled since North Korea’s post World War II inception in 1948.

His grandfather Kim Il Sung remains a revered figure 17 years after his death. Jong Un appears to be modeling himself after his grandfather, down to his hairdo. Portraits of the young Kim Il Sung hanging on the walls of the Pyongyang office where the president founded the Workers’ Party show the same look: a thick head of hair on top and shaved at the sides above the ear.

The most popular of the songs written to honor Jong Un is called ‘‘Footsteps,’’ an obvious reference to his role in carrying out his family’s legacy.

Narushige Michishita, an expert at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo, said that Jong Un’s leadership could bring instability.

But recent opportunities for North Koreans to use the Internet and cellphones, he said, have been allowed by ‘‘relatively young policymakers’’ in Jong Un’s generation. ‘‘Those people will be running the country in coming decades,’’ Michishita said. ‘‘So in that sense we can expect some new things, but we don’t know if that will result in political transformation.’’

Jong Un is known to have studied for a few years in Switzerland, and is believed to speak English, German and French, though experts caution against thinking of him as reform-minded just because he lived in the West.

‘‘I wouldn’t draw huge conclusions from the fact that he spent a year or two in Europe as a boy,’’ said Delury. ‘‘But you know, he’s significantly younger, and generational shifts happen no matter wherever you are in the world, including North Korea, so he is going to have a different orientation.’’

According to the memoir of a man who says he spent 11 years as the family’s sushi chef, Jong Un is tough and ambitious like his father.

The chef, who goes by the pen name Kenji Fujimoto, described Jong Un as a competitive, even ruthless, child.

Dressed in a military outfit, the young Jong Un ‘‘glared at me with a menacing look when we shook hands’’ the first time they met, Fujimoto wrote in ‘‘Kim Jong Il’s Chef.’’ ‘'I can never forget the look in his eyes which seemed to be saying, ‘This one is a despicable Japanese.'’’

Basketball was his chief passion, especially following the Chicago Bulls, the chef recalled. He also loved movies, just like his dad. In looks, tastes and personality, the youngest son was the ‘‘spitting image’’ of his father, and it was clear even back then he was the leader’s favorite, he said.

Apart from these few tantalizing details, much remains unknown about Jong Un or the real breadth of his power.

‘‘There’s much uncertainty,’’ Yoon said. ‘‘Because we don’t know who’s really in charge.’’

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Associated Press writers Jean H. Lee in Pyongyang, North Korea; Malcolm Foster in Tokyo; and Foster Klug in Seoul, South Korea, contributed to this report.

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