The newly minted four-star general, believed in his late 20s, is widely credited at home with orchestrating a deadly artillery attack on a front-line South Korean island that nearly brought the foes to the brink of another war. He appears regularly with his father at marquee events and accompanies him on inspection trips to farms and factories -- visits now commemorated with plaques bearing his name.
Officials even say Jong Un, who was on hand for a recent state visit by Laos' president, has been entrusted with full leadership of the country while his father has made extended trips to China and Russia over the last year.
At least that's the official portrait emerging of the young man who in just one year has cemented his status as North Korea's next leader.
The inner workings of North Korea's political leadership and mythmaking have never been easy for the outside world to fathom or confirm. Information is tightly controlled, both to the people at home and to the wider world. Dissent and opposition carry the price of forced labor or execution, according to human rights groups and the U.S. State Department.
Still, North Korea has made substantial progress in building up the cult of personality surrounding Jong Un, and a biography and other top government and political posts can be expected over the coming months, says Yoo Ho-yeol, a professor at Korea University in South Korea.
“He is now performing the role of successor,” Yoo said Monday. “He has virtually cemented his status as the next leader.”
Jong Un was unveiled to the world a year ago 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.
Succession became a pressing issue in 2008 when Kim Jong Il dropped out of public sight for several months. U.S. and South Korean officials say he suffered a stroke; the North Korean people say their tireless leader was suffering from exhaustion.
At the time, none of his sons appeared ready to assume the mantle of leadership, spawning fears of a dangerous power vacuum in the nuclear-armed nation.
Despite the vigorous political campaign to install Jong Un as the future leader in the people's minds, he remains an enigma, even to those at home. His purported feats, discussed in hushed tones, are presented as fact without any proof, and in South Korea, speculation abounds about rumored measures exacted to ensure loyalty to the next leader.
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 exact date of birth, his marital status and even the name of his mother -- said to be Kim Jong Il's late second wife, Ko Yong Hui -- have never been made public, even to the North Korean people.
North Koreans are expecting to learn more about him next year when the nation celebrates one of its biggest historical milestones: the 100th anniversary on April 15 of the birth of the late family patriarch Kim Il Sung.
Next year promises to be momentous for a government that loves round figures. Kim Il Sung would have turned 100, Kim Jong Il will be 70, and some speculate that Kim Jong Un may celebrate his 30th birthday in what would be a perfect storm of succession mathematics.
The emphasis on the Kim family's legitimacy to lead has never been stronger. 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. On Monday, students in traditional dress swayed and danced to the song at plaza in front of the city's massive monument to the Workers' Party.
Kim Il Sung remains a revered figure 17 years after his death, and 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.
North Koreans have been on a frantic mission to build a “strong and prosperous country” as part of new economic policies rolled out in 2009 as part of the succession movement. Factories have been charged with churning out an array of consumer goods designed to improve the people's daily lives. All across Pyongyang, buildings are being torn down and renovated and new ones built, a campaign said to be led by Jong Un, even as fuel and food shortages mean legions outside the capital city are living without basic necessities.
At the Wonsan Youth Power Station in eastern North Korea, manager Pyon Ung Kyu said the hydropower plant has put up a third plaque on the wall in honor of the future leader.
One gives blessings to Kim Il Sung, another to Kim Jong Il, and the newest -- also in honorific red lettering -- to the “Illustrious General.”
Across the countryside, similar plaques are visible, posted at schools, farms and shops.
In Pyongyang, Ri Un Suk, manager of a showcase shop selling meat and fish on central Pothongmun Street, recalls how Jong Un, full of energy, turned up with his father last month to inspect the new store.
She described how he ushered his father into an elevator and then bounded up three flights to make sure to greet him when the doors opened.
“He may be the future leader, but he's still a good son to his father,” she said, standing in front of a plaque commemorating the two Kims' September visit. “I was impressed by his loyalty as well as his wisdom.”
북한 곳곳에서 보이는 김정은 우상화
“북한서도 수수께끼 인물…상점 등지에 기념판 붙어”
북한 김정일 국방위원장의 삼남이자 후계자인 김정은은 노동당 군사위원회 부위원장으로 바쁜 한 해를 보냈다.
그는 아버지와 함께 각종 행사에 주기적으로 참석하고 아버지가 농장과 공장 등을 시찰할 때도 따라간다.
AP통신이 10일 평양발로 이같이 전하면서 북한의 김정은 우상화 분위기에 대해 보도했다.
이 통신은 김정은을 북한 인민의 마음속에 후계자로 각인시키려는 정치적 선전이 활발하지만, 그가 북한 내에서도 수수께끼로 남아있다고 전했다.
통신에 따르면 김정은은 김일성대학을 졸업하고 영어 등 여러 외국어를 구사하며 컴퓨터의 달인이라고 북한에서 알려졌지만 정확한 출생일이나 결혼 여부, 심지어 는 어머니의 이름조차도 북한에서 공개적으로 발표된 것이 없다.
다만, 내년 4월15일 김일성 탄생 100주년 기념일을 맞아 그에 대한 정보가 더 많이 나올 것으로 북한 사람들은 기대하고 있다고 통신은 전했다.
AP통신은 김일성 일가의 정통성에 대한 강조가 지금처럼 강했던 적은 없다면서 김정은을 기리고자 만들어진 노래 가운데 가장 인기 있는 '발걸음'은 가족의 유산을 물려받을 그의 역할에 대한 명백한 언급이라고 지적했다.
통신은 10일 한복을 입은 학생들이 평양 광장의 거대한 노동당 기념물 앞에서 이 노래에 맞춰 춤을 췄다고 전했다.
김정은은 사후 16년이 지났지만 아직 추앙받는 인물인 할아버지 김일성의 헤어 스타일까지 따라하고 있는 것으로 보인다고 통신은 보도했다. 젊은 시절의 초상화에 서 보이는 김일성의 헤어스타일은 머리 윗부분이 두텁고 귀 위쪽이 깎인 형태로 지금의 김정은과 닮았다는 것이다.
한편 원산 수력발전소의 표응규 매니저는 발전소 벽에 김일성과 김정일에 이어 김정은을 기리는 세 번째 기념판을 붙였다면서 '걸출한 장군'이라는 빨간 글자가 새 겨 있다고 AP통신에 말했다. 이와 비슷한 기념판은 북한 전역의 학교나 농장, 상점에서 눈에 띈다고 통신은 전했다.
평양 보통문거리에 새로 만들어진 정육점의 관리인인 리은숙은 김정일-정은 부 자가 지난달 상점을 방문했을 때의 기억을 떠올렸다.
그는 김정은이 아버지를 엘리베이터에 타도록 안내하고 나서 엘리베이터 문이 열릴 때 맞이하려고 3개 층을 뛰어올라갔다면서 “훌륭한 아들”이라고 말했다.