SEOUL, South Korea — What do you get the future leader of North Korea for his birthday? Sports cars, racehorses and yachts if you’re a party apparatchik hoping to please the Swiss-schooled "Young General."
But if North Korea is planning a big birthday bash for Kim Jong Un, it’s keeping it well under wraps.
Unveiled to the world last year as leader Kim Jong Il’s chosen successor to lead the communist nation, Kim Jong Un is believed to be turning 28 on Saturday.
However, secretive North Korea has never confirmed his age or birth date — or even that he’s Kim Jong Il’s son.
Two 2011 calendars from Pyongyang obtained by The Associated Press do not show Jan. 8 marked in red as a national holiday, as they do for the birthdays of his father and grandfather, the late President Kim Il Sung.
North Korea watchers, however, say party leaders will still probably line up to offer lavish gifts to Kim Jong Un, popularly known as the "Young General."
The country’s leadership struggles to feed the population of 24 million. But sports cars, racehorses and yachts would not be out of the question — even perhaps an iPad for a young man said to favor technology, said Park In-ho, managing editor at the Daily NK, a Seoul-based Internet news outlet that focuses on North Korean affairs.
North Korean military chief Yi Yong Ho ordered a raft of birthday gifts for the young Kim and a special army task force was assembled to determine what presents to buy and how to pay for them, the Daily NK reported this week, citing unidentified sources.
Birthdays are central to the mythology of the two men who have ruled North Korea with absolute authority since its founding in 1948.
Kim Jong Il’s official biography says he was born in a secret anti-Japanese guerrilla camp high on sacred Mount Paektu in February 1942, his birth heralded by a new star in the skies and a double rainbow over the mountains. But some say public records show he was actually born in the Soviet Union in 1941.
The Kims’ birthdays are considered the most important holidays in North Korea, even more significant than Lunar New Year, said Cheong Seong-chang, a senior fellow at the private Sejong Institute think tank in South Korea.
North Koreans dress in their finest for the celebrations, donning military uniforms or traditional "chosun ot" dresses to dance in streets festooned with banners and flowers and feast on state-sponsored gifts of food and liquor.
South Korean officials are watching closely to see how North Korea marks Kim Jong Un’s birthday — the first since he made his public debut as heir apparent last year, and since tensions escalated between the neighbors when the North shelled a South Korean island in November.
Last year, his birthday was treated as an unofficial holiday, with officials pledging their allegiance to the son in closed-door meetings, according to Seoul-based monitoring groups. The military, the ruling Workers’ Party and other state organizations quietly marked the occasion with sporting events and other celebrations, the Unification Ministry said.
With Kim Jong Il still firmly in power and the succession process in its early stages, North Korea is expected to commemorate this year’s birthday in a similarly subdued manner, according to the ministry, which is in charge of relations with North Korea.
In the capital, Pyongyang, there were no obvious signs of preparations for a big celebration. Footage shot this week in the frigid city by Associated Press Television News showed North Koreans bundled in thick parkas, some hurrying through the streets and others pausing to read a newspaper posted on a bulletin board.
Foreign diplomats say they have received no word of formal celebrations.
The birthday is taking place at a tense time in the region following North Korea’s attack on Yeonpyeong Island, which killed four South Koreans.
There may also be concerns in Pyongyang that a lavish celebration would heighten criticism of the hereditary transfer of power, analyst Cheong said.
By contrast, North Korea is gearing up for massive celebrations in 2012 to mark the 100th anniversary of Kim Il Sung’s birth, and there’s widespread speculation that Kim Jong Il may use the milestone to formally name his son his successor.
In late September, Kim Jong Un was made a four-star general and at a landmark political convention was granted a slew of top government jobs, putting to rest questions about which of Kim Jong Il’s three sons was his favorite.
Days later, the youngest son made his international debut by appearing at his father’s side at a thundering military parade in Pyongyang as international TV cameras rolled.
Since then, he’s joined his father on visits to army bases, factories, concerts and performances — all captured by state media and promoted to the people in documentaries aired repeatedly in recent days.
North Koreans will begin seeing odes to Kim Jong Un — poems, novels and artwork — as the public propaganda machine ramps up, the state-run Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul said in a recent report.
In Pyongyang, one young man told the AP that he had been learning about the son in special study sessions.
"We had heard that when the Young General was admired by everyone who met him for his intelligence and personality," Pak Chol, 23, said in October.
After his birthday, Kim Jong Un is expected to take up other top posts one by one as his father did — most notably vice chairmanship of the powerful National Defense Commission, organizational secretary of the Workers’ Party and supreme commander of the 1.2 million-member military.
With little time left to establish his political clout — Kim Jong Il is thought to be in poor health — North Korea appears to be relying on the pull of patrilineage to justify his future role.
Kim Jong Un looks every inch Kim Il Sung’s grandson, from the thick head of closely cropped hair and dark brow to the double chin and precociously portly stance. He has his father’s mouth and has adopted Kim Jong Il’s distinct manner of clapping.
Pak said seeing the son for the first time on state TV in October filled him with a sense of strength and optimism for his country’s future.
"He has President Kim Il Sung’s face," said Pak, who had a badge with Kim Il Sung’s portrait pinned to his navy uniform.
Associated Press writer Kim Kwang-tae contributed to this report.