By Kim Hyun
SEOUL, Jan. 15 (Yonhap) -- North Korean leader Kim Jong-il has recently designated his third son, Kim Jong-un, as his successor and delivered a directive on the nomination to the Workers' Party leadership, sources well-informed on North Korea said Thursday.
The decision by the elder Kim comes earlier than expected and was likely driven by his poor health condition after suffering a stroke last August, multiple intelligence sources said. Kim's 68th birthday is next month.
If actualized, the junior Kim's succession would be the second father-to-son power transfer in the communist country, unprecedented in modern history.
"(Kim) delivered a directive around Jan. 8 that he has named Jong-un as his successor to the leadership of the Workers' Party," one of the sources told Yonhap News Agency on condition of anonymity.
Jong-un, now 25, was born to Kim's third wife, Ko Yong-hi, who died of breast cancer at the age of 51 in 2004. The youngest of Kim's three sons, Jong-un was educated at the International School of Berne and is known to be a fan of NBA basketball. After his return to Pyongyang in his late teens, the North has kept him under a shroud of secrecy and very little is known about his character.
Kim Jong-il was 32 when he was tapped as successor by his father and the nation's founder Kim Il-sung in a general meeting of the Workers' Party in February 1974. He took over after his father's death in 1994.
Jong-un's nomination was completely unexpected in the North, even among party leaders, multiple sources said.
"The sudden nomination caught even senior members of the leadership by surprise," another source said. "The power elite who have learned of Jong-un's designation are rushing to line up behind the junior Kim and this climate will rapidly spread across North Korean society," the source said.
The elder Kim is known to have shunned talks of a power transfer out of fear that the communist country would be subjected to mockery and that he would immediately become a lame duck.
The sources said Kim's deteriorating health condition changed his mind. North Korean media has portrayed the leader as healthy and active in recent weeks, reporting on his visits to factories and military units and releasing photographs of the reported tours. But sources say Kim has remained mentally feeble ever since the stroke.
Observers have said Kim favored his youngest son the most among his children. In his bestselling memoir "I Was Kim Jong Il's Cook," Kenji Fujimoto, a former Japanese sushi chef for the North Korean leader, said Kim thought of his second son, Jong-chol, as too effeminate and unfit for leadership, mostly seating Jong-un next to him.
"He is the spitting image of his father. Even his body build is similar," Fujimoto said in the book.
Kim's first son, Jong-nam, is frowned upon due to his liberal Western tastes and prodigal behavior and was not interested in assuming power, they said. Jong-nam is 38 and Jong-chol is 28.
Jong-un refrained from socializing in Berne, spending most of his time outside of school at home, according to the wishes of his father, who did not want him to be influenced by the West. When he ate out, he was accompanied by Ri Chol, the North Korean ambassador to Switzerland, who is known to be the manager of Kim Jong-il's secret funds, sources said.
The youngest son is said to be 175 centimeters tall and weigh about 90kg due to a lack of exercise. He reportedly already has high blood pressure and diabetes. Unlike his brothers, no images of him have been captured by foreign media.
The sources said Pyongyang will soon launch a propaganda drive to officially raise Jong-un's public standing.
North Korea is scheduled to hold parliamentary elections on March 8, which Seoul experts forecast will promote young economic elite to lay the groundwork for the post-Kim era. The Institute for National Security Strategy, which is an arm of the National Intelligence Agency, said in a report in late December that economic pragmatism will emerge with the generational shift in the North.
Pyongyang has refrained from its usual anti-U.S. tirade in recent weeks and on Tuesday strongly urged Barack Obama's new U.S. administration to drop its "hostile policy" and normalize bilateral relations, a move that will also help lift economic sanctions on the North.
Kim Ho-nyoun, spokesman for Seoul's Unification Ministry that orchestrates inter-Korean policy, said, "Concerning the reported designation, we have not been able to confirm."
Koh Yu-hwan, a North Korea studies professor at Seoul's Dongguk University, said the alleged designation was a sensitive issue but acknowledged it is feasible. The notion of a father-to-son takeover has become an inveterate part of the secretive state, he noted.
"North Korea has talked a lot about its founder Kim Il-sung and his father, as well as the current leader Kim Jong-il. Hereditary succession has become for the country a kind of conventional constitution," he said.
"The leader's health has worsened and he might have wanted to nip in the bud those who are trying to reach for power," Koh said.