SEOUL—Kim Jong Un, the youngest son of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, is now functioning as director of the Stalinist country’s powerful State Security Department, knowledgeable sources say, bolstering speculation he is being groomed to succeed his father soon.
The sources, who asked not to be identified, also expect a major celebration Jan. 8 in North Korea, the younger Kim’s birthday, to shore up his status as heir-apparent—and third-generation ruler from the Kim family of the tightly closed country.
One source quoted a high-ranking North Korean Workers’ Party official in Pyongyang, whom he declined to name, as describing Kim Jong Un as “director of the State Security Department,” North Korea’s secret police.
The State Security Department deals with anti-government activities such as espionage, counter-intelligence, and overseas spying.
Succession speculation has intensified since the 67-year-old current leader suffered a stroke in August 2008. Kim Jong Il has three sons from two unions, according to outside analysts.
Kim Jong Il served previously as State Security Department director, with Woo Dong Cheuk managing day-to-day operations.
According to South Korean media, father and son visited State Security Department headquarters together in March 2009 inside the Amisan Government Complex in Pyongyang’s Taesong ward, where the third son inherited the “authority” of director.
“Recently Kim Jong Un is accompanying Chairman Kim Jong Il on most of his official field trips,” one China-based source said.
“The process of establishing the foundation for the hereditary transfer of power is almost complete.”
In November and December, the source said, North Korea “imported large amounts of gunpowder for fireworks from China,” possibly in preparation for a celebration of Kim Jong Un’s 28th birthday Jan. 8.
North Korea experts here expect 2010 will see the formal designation of Kim Jong Un as his father’s successor, as the ruling Workers’ Party celebrates its own 65th anniversary.
“It is very likely that the North Korean leadership will summon a congress of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party in 2010 to formally announce the impending enthronement of Kim Jong Un to the core party cadres,” analyst Jeong Sung-jang, at the Sejong Institute here, said.
“Just as Kim Jong Il was appointed organization secretary of the Workers’ Party Central Committee in 1973, one can consider the possibility of having Kim Jong Un appointed organization secretary of the Central Committee in 2010, a position second only to that of general secretary.”
Kim Jong Il would likely remain engaged in international nuclear negotiations and top-level talks with South Korea, he said.
Kim Jong Un’s position as third-generation would-be successor is considerably less certain than his father’s, according to North Korea experts.
His mother, Ko Young Hee, was a Japanese-born Korean who was never officially married to Kim Jong Il, according to James Person, program associate at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.
“Ko Young Hee did not have an official title in North Korea. She was just Kim Jong Il’s concubine,” Person said.
Original reporting by Songwu Park. Korean service director: Bong Hyon Park. Translated from the Korean by Grigore Scarlatoiu. Written for the Web in English by Sarah Jackson-Han.