The son rises: Kim Jong-un anointed amid missile fears

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He may like drinking, he may like basketball and he probably went to school in Switzerland. What appears increasingly certain, however, is that Kim Jong-un, the youngest of Kim Jong-il's three sons, has been anointed as the North Korean leader's successor.

Reports from South Korea said that North Korea's military chiefs, Communist Party officials and state employees were told to put their support behind the 26-year-old who had been chosen by his father to take the world's only communist dynasty into its third generation. Several South Korean politicians said they had been briefed on the developments by their intelligence services. One, Park Jie-won, said the regime in the north was already "pledging its allegiance to Jong-un".

It was once assumed that Kim Jong-il's eldest son, Kim Jong-nam, 38, was being groomed to take over from his father. However in 2001 he was discovered trying to enter Japan on a fake passport and reportedly told officials he wanted to visit Tokyo's Disney resort. According to claims by the North Korean leader's former sushi chef, Kim Jong-il considered his middle son, Kim Jong-chol, too effeminate for the role.

And so attention has turned to Kim Jong-un. Indeed, back in January a flurry of reports appeared, saying that the youngest son had been chosen as the successor but that the decision had not at that stage been widely circulated. In contrast, the latest reports suggest he is now being hailed as "Commander Kim," and people are learning the lyrics to a new song praising him as the next leader.

If true, the decision to anoint him might go some way to explaining some of North Korea's seemingly belligerent behaviour, including a nuclear test last week. Last month, the regime also began a "150-day battle" in which North Koreans were urged to work harder to build the country's economy. These actions may have been designed to build nationalist fervour and support for a successor. Kim Jong-il, who is believed to have suffered a stroke last year, is understood to want to name a successor by 2012, the centenary of the birth of his father and North Korea's, Kim Il-sung. "Before 2012, North Korea must convince the army and the public that Jong-un is the best successor," Atsuhito Isozaki, an assistant professor of North Korean politics at Tokyo's Keio University, told the Associated Press. "To pave the way for Jong-un's leadership, it is highly likely that North Korea will turn recent nuclear and missile tests into his achievements."

Kim Jung-il, who was once portly and known for his love of cognac and fine dining, made his first state appearance since last year's stroke at the opening session of the new parliament in the second week of April. Reports say he was much thinner, more grey and limping slightly. Very little is known about Kim Jong-un, although some reports say he might lead with the backing of his uncle, Jang Song-thaek, a member of the all-powerful National Defence Commission who has strong military and political connections.

Kim Jong-un is apparentlythe second son of former dancer Ko Yong-hi, Kim Jong-il's favourite wife who died of cancer in 2004. She apparently called him "Morning Star King". The Swiss weekly news magazine L'Hebdo said that as a boy he studied at the International School in Bern. A classmate recalled him as timid and introverted but an avid skier and basketball player who was a big fan of Michael Jordan and action hero Jean-Claude Van Damme. He was said to be humble and friendly with the children of American diplomats and often helped break up fights between classmates.

In a memoir recounting the days he spent as Kim Jong Il's personal chef, Kenji Fujimoto wrote: "When Jong-un shook hands with me he stared at me with a vicious look. I cannot forget the look in the Prince's eyes: it's as if he was thinking, 'This guy is a despicable Japanese'. He is a chip off the old block, a spitting image of his father in terms of face, body shape and personality."