But the visible power transfer to Kim Jong Eun began only 15 months ago, when North Korea held a massive political gathering in Pyongyang and named him to several top military and Workers’ Party positions. Some outside experts fear that now, the nuclear-armed nation is more likely to carry out military attacks elsewhere in the region as a way to further burnish Kim Jong Eun’s résumé.
Some Seoul media outlets reported last year that Kim Jong Eun was the mastermind behind a pair of 2010 attacks — the sinking of a South Korean warship and the shelling of a front-line South Korean island.
With its official propaganda, though, North Korea has given only halting signals of Kim Jong Eun’s rise. A common children’s song that supposedly celebrated him didn’t mention his name. His birthday passed without official acknowledgment.
When Kim Jong Il made official trips to China and Russia, Kim Jong Eun stayed at home. When the father traveled domestically, visiting factories and grocery stores, meeting with military units and watching figure-skating events, the son frequently joined him. But most times, for official photos, the younger Kim stayed in the background.
Kim Jong Eun’s profile expanded in September, when he met with the president of Laos, sitting side-by-side with his father. He also attended a large military parade, sharing a VIP booth with his father.
In public, the chubby Kim Jong Eun wore dark Mao-style suits, similar to those worn by his grandfather. His hairstyle — a long, black wave on top, sides buzzed almost to the scalp — was described by the official state newspaper as “sobering and stylish.”
Although a hagiographic campaign hailed him as the “Dear Young General,” it is unclear how much support he has within the armed forces or the ruling party, both of which are dominated by far older men.
For more than six decades, the Kim family has used North Korea as its own family-run business, gathering nuclear weapons, collecting luxury cars, funneling money to the military, paying little attention to chronic food shortages in the countryside and using isolation to hold it all together.
But Kim Jong Il’s death comes at a time when North Koreans have increased access to outside information, adding an obstacle that the Dear Leader never faced in his own succession. In an effort to bring in hard currency, the country has opened up to outside investors. Defector groups in Seoul smuggle in CDs and USB flash drives, loaded with pro-democracy information. With its central food-distribution system all but broken, North Korean officials have allowed for the emergence of private marketplaces — gathering spots where people can potentially share, in whispers, ideas they once kept to themselves.
Correspondent Andrew Higgins in Hong Kong and special correspondent Yoonjung Seo in Seoul contributed to