Kim Jong Un: Potential Successor in North Korea, but Who Is He?

BY Larisa Epatko  September 9, 2010 at 2:21 PM EST

A major conference of North Korea’s ruling Workers’ Party in Pyongyang has raised the expectation of a handover of power from Kim Jong Il to his youngest son.

The transition appears to have been underway for months. In June, Kim (pictured at right) promoted his brother in law to a top leadership post and made other Cabinet changes in what many considered preparation for turning over the government to his youngest son Kim Jong Un.

The elder Kim, 68, appears to have health problems and suffered a stroke in 2008.

Not much is known about his third son, except that he is in his late twenties and went to boarding school in Switzerland as a teenager, where he was enrolled under the name “Pak Un.” There, one of the few known photos of Kim was taken.

More photos might be coming. The Economist reports that Open Radio for North Korea says 10 million portraits of the young man were ordered for distribution at the conference.

But with little known about Kim, it is difficult to get beyond speculation on the type of leader he would be. According to Time magazine’s Bill Powell:

“If Kim Jong Un’s rise signals a youth movement within the North Korean leadership, as some have speculated, then perhaps he will manage the country more pragmatically and finally ditch the hard-line economic ideology that has driven North Korea to penury.

“The only problem with this optimistic line of thinking is that there is not a shred of evidence to back it up.”

Such secrecy is typical of the country and Kim family. The Associated Press reports:

“Kim Jong Il was similarly kept out of the public eye until his official debut at the last major political conference in 1980. He succeeded his father when the ‘Great Leader’ died in 1994 of heart failure in what was the communist world’s first hereditary transition of power.”