An increasing number of signs indicate that North Korean leader Kim Jong-il`s youngest son Jong-eun has reached a significant stage in the grooming process to succeed his father.
Pyongyang is officially discrete about it, as it had been with Kim Jong-il before he was publicly announced as his father`s successor, but information gathered by experts and North Korean media reports hint at a growing public awareness of Jong-eun as the next leader.
According to at least one North Korea watcher, Kim Jong-eun is already involved in the personnel management of the North Korean elite with the help of Ri Je-gang, first deputy chief of the organization-guidance department under the Workers` Party, and Jang Song-thaek, Kim Jong-il`s brother-in-law and chief of the party`s administration department.
"It has been confirmed by informed sources that Kim Jong-eun has already acquired a certain level of authority to appoint or fire senior officials of the North Korean Workers` Party," said Cheong Seong-chang, senior fellow of the inter-Korean relations studies program at Sejong Institute.
"Jong-eun exercises direct control over the positioning of mid-level managers, equivalent to or lower than director generals in the South Korean government, and seeks Kim Jong-il`s approval for moving around higher-level officials."
Jong-eun has also accompanied Kim Jong-il on numerous field guidance trips to army bases and facilities throughout the year, building his influence over the military, Cheong said.
"Pyongyang is likely to renew extolment of Kim Jong-eun after holding high-level talks with the United States," Cheong said.
North Korean propaganda had attributed former U.S. president Bill Clinton`s Pyongyang visit in August to Jong-eun`s "strategic mind."
Having secretly named 26-year-old Jong-eun as Kim Jong-il`s successor early this year, Pyongyang has employed various propaganda tactics to convince its people to admire the young heir.
Evidence shows that they include music, posters and educational materials elaborating on his greatness.
North Korean state media earlier this month showed a propaganda song praising Jong-eun was sung at a performance attended by Kim Jong-il.
The song "Footsteps" was presented by a choir at a provincial theater, according to the Oct. 9 footage from the North`s Korean Central Broadcasting Station. It was the first reported case of the song being played at an official event attended by the current leader.
"Footsteps," reportedly written by top composer Ri Jong-o, has been widely interpreted as extolling the valiance of Jong-eun.
The television broadcast aired still photos from the concert showing the title of the song displayed in green on an electronic board above the stage while dozens of men and women sing in ensemble.
Kim Jong-il`s entourage featured his sister Kim Kyong-hui and her husband Jang Song-thaek, both of whom are believed to be deeply involved in grooming the heir apparent at directorial posts at the Workers` Party.
A photograph taken last month near North Korea`s Wonsan on the eastern coast by a Taiwanese photographer showed a propaganda poster praising the "young general comrade Kim Jong-eun." Lyrics of Footsteps were also on the poster.
The photographer Huang Hanming posted the image on the internet portal (Flickr), elucidating how North Koreans were encouraged to recognize Jong-eun as the legitimate heir.
Japan`s Mainichi Shimbun early this month disclosed confidential North Korean propaganda on its website that describes Jong-eun as a "genius of military strategy with thorough knowledge of modern military science and technology."
The material contains a series of typical dialectic on the importance of succession by Jong-eun, who greatly resembles his father, and provides guidance to North Koreans on how to support him.
Experts` views are varied, however, on how the shift of power will present itself.
Some say that after Kim Jong-il steps down, most probably by death, his brother-in-law Jang will lead an interim government until Jong-eun is ready to fully take over.
Kim Kwang-jin, who defected from North Korea in 2003 and currently works as a researcher at a North Korean human rights commission in the United States, believes so as Jong-eun is too young and inexperienced. There has to be a more reliable backup to fill in the gap in case Kim Jong-il suddenly dies, according to Kim.
"Rather than an immediate succession by Jong-eun, a transitional period led by Jang Song-thaek is more likely to follow the end of Kim Jong-il`s era," Kim reportedly said at a lecture at the Brookings Institute in Washington D.C. on Tuesday.
Kim, who defected to South Korea while working at the Singapore branch of a North Korean public company and began working in the United States this year, said the United States should diversify its approach on North Korea instead of restricting its policy to denuclearization.
Meanwhile, an analyst affiliated with the South Korean government claimed that talk of succession among the North Korean elite has recently subsided after Kim Jong-il`s dispute with his son and Jang over military personnel management in the summer.
"Kim Jong-il began to repress Jong-eun and Jang as he often clashed with them over military personnel management in June and July," said Nam Sung-wook, chief of the Institute for National Security Strategy, a think tank affiliated with the National Intelligence Service, in a seminar last week.
"Talk of succession came to a halt in August."
By Kim So-hyun