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From little-known son to ‘great successor’

Petar Kujundzic/Reuters

Kim Jong Un first appeared to the general public at an Oct. 10, 2010, military parade.

PYONGYANG, North Korea - With the sudden death of his father, Kim Jong Un went from being North Korea’s “respected general’’ to “great successor’’ - a heady and uncertain promotion for a young man virtually unknown even to the North Korean people just a year ago.

Kim Jong Il’s death, announced yesterday two days after he suffered a fatal heart attack, thrusts his 20-something son into the spotlight as the future head of a nation grappling with difficult nuclear negotiations and chronic food shortages.

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Within hours of breaking the news of his father’s death, state media urged the nation’s people to rally around Kim Jong Un and to “faithfully revere’’ their next leader. The son has not appeared publicly since the announcement of his father’s death.

The death speeds up a succession process that began in earnest a little more than a year ago - scant time to gain experience, build political clout, and allay skepticism at home and abroad that he can lead a nation of 24 million. His father, by contrast, had 20 years of grooming before his father, North Korea founder Kim Il Sung, died in 1994.

News of Kim’s death shocked a nation largely kept in the dark about their leader’s health even after he suffered a stroke in 2008. Abroad, there was widespread speculation throughout 2009 about who would succeed the iron-fisted ruler.

Kim Jong Un’s emergence in September 2010 as the anointed successor settled the question of which of Kim Jong Il’s three known sons was chosen as the third-generation leader in a family dynasty that has ruled since North Korea’s post-World War II inception in 1948. And his status as his father’s anointed successor has become clear over the course of the past year.

After naming him vice chairman of the Central Military Commission of the ruling Workers’ Party, Kim Jong Il presented the son to the world a few weeks later at a massive military parade to celebrate a key party anniversary.

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With worldwide news media in attendance and the appearance shown live, the young son appeared on the balcony of the Grand People’s Study Hall in a blue suit, waving as tanks loaded with missiles barreled by.

Since that first glimpse of the son, North Koreans have seen him regularly on state TV, in the Pyongyang Times newspaper, and in the Korean Central News Agency as he accompanied his father on trips around the country.

Stocky and youthful, he bears more than a passing resemblance to his grandfather, Kim Il Sung, as a young man - a similarity that plays into the emphasis on lineage and legacy as just cause to make him leader.

He began appearing with his father at state events and reportedly ran the country when Kim traveled to Russia and China, and is credited at home with orchestrating a deadly November 2010 artillery attack on a front-line South Korean island that nearly brought the foes to the brink of another war.

Kim Jong Il’s leadership was defined by his “songun’’ policy of putting the powerful military first. Kim Jong Un’s formal ascension will usher in a new era of leadership - but it remains to be seen what direction he will take the nation.

“It is impossible to say with certainty what his era will look like. Trying to anticipate the near future is tough enough,’’ said Andray Abrahamian, executive director of the Choson Exchange, a Singapore-based nonprofit group that facilitates educational exchange with North Korea. “We expect greater caution and less willingness to try new things in the near term, making our programs more difficult to run. Things look like they’re locking down already.’’

North Koreans have been told Kim Jong Un graduated from Kim Il Sung Military University; speaks several foreign languages, including English; and is a whiz at computing and technology.

But they have not been told much else.

He is said to celebrate his birthday in January, but the year - or even the name of his mother - have not been revealed publicly. Even his name, though whispered for years, was never published in state media until the announcement in September 2010 that he had been promoted to four-star general.

The visits have also provided hints to what areas Kim Jong Un may favor when he formally takes power. Newly opened shops and factories churning out goods using digital technology have been favorite spots for a man said to like computers.

Two songs in vogue in Pyongyang are considered odes to Kim Jong Un: “Footsteps,’’ an obvious reference to his role in carrying out his family’s legacy, and “Song of CNC,’’ or Computerized Numerical Control, better known elsewhere as digital technology.

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