North Korea's enigmatic and ailing dictator, Kim Jong Il, is thought to have made a surprise selection to succeed him as leader of the nuclear-armed, Stalinist autocracy.
Intelligence sources in Seoul said yesterday that - very much against the expectations of South Korean analysis - Mr Kim, 66, had chosen his youngest and favourite son, Jong Un, to take over the all-pervasive family personality cult that controls the country when he is gone.
The potential heir, who is thought to be no more than 24, was educated in Switzerland and is the offspring of of Mr Kim's third marriage and his supposedly favourite wife - a woman who died five years ago. The reclusive leader is believed to have three children.
In the regular and heated speculation among North Korea watchers Jong Un has been routinely dismissed as a likely successor because of his youth.
Little about his upbringing is thought to make him suited to the task of following in his father and grandfather's footsteps. If Jong Un does assume control, he will inherit a persistently moribund economy, relations across the Korean peninsula that have plumbed new lows and an agricultural crisis that annually pushes the country dangerously close to outright famine.
Analysts at the Korea Institute for National Unification said that the critical date to watch was the March 8 parliamentary election: one KINU official said that if Jong Un is suddenly given a seat on the powerful National Defence Commission, it will be a sign that he has begun the process to succeed his father. Experts in North Korean propaganda said that the selection of a notably young successor for Mr Kim was a logical step for the regime: the cult surrounding the "Dear Leader" has consistently presented him as vigorous and hearty. If, as many suspect, Mr Kim has suffered a stroke and is rather frail, the only way to present that reality to ordinary North Koreans, said one government source in Seoul, is with his young, vigorous son at his side.
Rumours of the anointment were greeted with scepticism in some quarters, as were suggestions that the political and military hierarchies had been asked to pass the heir apparent's name down through their ranks to prepare for a handover. In a nation defined by its opaqueness, the succession issue is perhaps the most closely guarded secret and many observers believe that South Korean intelligence scoops on the subject are liable to be flawed.
Others said that the selection of a successor was a natural move for Mr Kim, whose health and grip on power have been matters of intensifying speculation in recent months.
International man of mystery
- Jong Un was born to Kim's third wife, Ko Yong Hi, a former star of Pyongyang's premier song-and-dance troupe
- Jong Un was reportedly educated at the International School of Berne, which he attended under a pseudonym
- Since his return to Pyongyang in his late teens, North Korea has kept him shrouded in secrecy. No picture has ever been published or released