POSTED: 5:09 a.m. HST, Oct 10, 2011
LAST UPDATED: 5:34 a.m. HST, Oct 10, 2011
PYONGYANG, North Korea >> The Illustrious General has had a busy year.
Since making his international debut a year ago Monday, Kim Jong Un has been serving as military strategist, political statesman and trusted deputy to his father, leader Kim Jong Il.
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."
Associated Press writer Hyung-jin Kim in Seoul, South Korea, contributed to this story.