North Korea’s new leader, Kim Jong-un, is a frightening unknown quantity in charge of a dangerously militarised state. Even his top officials fear a savage purge of their ranks.
Officially aged 29, but probably only 26 or 27, Kim Jong-un is the youngest man in history with the power to launch a nuclear weapon.
But the man who appears to have smoothly risen to become North Korea’s “Supreme Military Commander”, the title formally bestowed on him on Friday and confirmed by the ruling politburo yesterday, is a worrying blank to most of the outside world.
Days after his father was laid to rest, Western intelligence agencies are this weekend scrambling to learn more about Kim Jong-un, the man who will decide whether his country remains an impoverished, dangerous and isolated state or whether it begins a difficult process of reform and modernisation.
Inside North Korea, the country’s secretive regime has begun honing new propaganda messages about the new leader.
These include the claim that he has promised to bring prosperity back to half-starved North Korea so that in three years’ time, “everyone can eat rice with meat soup” – an old slogan of his grandfather’s that had been abandoned during the famine that the country has suffered since the 1990s.
At the same time, North Korea’s neighbours fear what else Kim Jong-un may do to assert his grip. Diplomats suspect he will engineer some kind of military incident, most likely with neighbouring South Korea, to demonstrate his ruthlessness and strength.
And party officials in Pyongyang have their own reasons to be nervous, according to well-placed sources: one simple step to cement his control over the machinery of power would be to arrange a swift purge of his possible enemies.
Until two years ago, when the ailing Kim Jong-il began the frantic search for his heir, almost no attention was paid to his third and youngest son. No one outside a tight-knit and secretive circle knows his precise age, whether he has a wife, or even with certainty who was his mother among the various women who married or were mistress to his father.
Some reports suggest she was Ko Yong-hui, a former dancer who may not have formally married Kim Jong-il but who nonetheless served as North Korea’s “first lady” until her death, believed to have been from breast cancer, in 2004. She is said to have doted on her son, calling him the “Morning Star King”.
As the younger Kim walked beside his father’s hearse last week, photographs beamed around the world revealed him to be a stern and portly man; his gaze impassive and his lips pursed into a grim pout.
His official biography, like those of his father and grandfather before him, is a work of propaganda that reveals almost nothing about him. Swirling around Pyongyang are tales of Kim’s military genius: he is said to have a flair for heavy artillery, having learned to shoot and drive at the tender age of three.
As a toddler, meanwhile, he was so inspired by his grandfather, Kim Il-sung, the revolutionary hero and first North Korean president, that he composed a poem to him in “perfect Chinese characters”.
After just two years of study in Switzerland, between 1998 and 2000, Kim apparently “mastered English, French, German and Italian, as well as Chinese, Japanese and Russian”.
A more realistic picture of the young Kim is painted by his old school friends from Switzerland, his fellow pupils at the German-speaking Steinhoelzi school in Berne.
Talking in the wake of his elevation to North Korea’s leadership, they said he was “always good for a laugh” but frankly, a bit “dim”.
“He was a big fan of the Chicago Bulls. His life was basketball at this time,” said Joao Micaelo, the son of a Portuguese diplomat who sat next to the young Kim as they both struggled through their German classes.
“I think 80 per cent of our time we were playing basketball.”
He said he had not heard from Kim for a decade, but that they used to watch kung-fu movies together, play computer games, and eat the food cooked up by Kim’s private chef.
“He was a good friend. He was very quiet. He was a nice guy. We weren’t the dimmest kids in class but neither were we the cleverest.
“We were always in the second tier. He left without getting any exam results at all. He was much more interested in football and basketball than in lessons.”
And when Kim confided to him that he was in fact the son of the North Korean leader, Mr Micaelo did not take him seriously. “Most of the time he listened to the North Korean national anthem, which we must have heard 1,000 times together.
“I only knew him in his alibi mode until one Sunday afternoon, just before he left for home in 2000. He pulled out a photograph of him alongside his father and said: ‘I am not the ambassador’s son. I am the son of the North Korean president.'”
Marco Imhof, another schoolfriend, said that Kim, who went by the pseudonym Pak Un and who was widely thought to be the son of a North Korean diplomat, was “funny – always good for a laugh.” He added: “I cannot believe I played basketball with him and now he could rule North Korea.”
After he returned from abroad in 2000, Kim is said to have studied for a degree in physics at the Kim Il-sung University, and then to have enrolled at the military university also named after his grandfather – a necessary step for someone who now holds the rank of four-star general in charge of the world’s fourth largest standing army and a highly militarised state.
He watched as his two older brothers ruled themselves out of the race to succeed their father.
The eldest, Kim Jong-nam, was caught in May 2001 trying to visit Disneyland in Tokyo on a forged passport and is now a regular visitor to Macau’s casinos. Kim Jong-chul, the second son, was apparently a “little girl” in his father’s eyes, according to Kenji Fujimoto, the former family chef.
So far, the succession has been orderly, with the North Korean army and the ruling Workers’ Party pledging their allegiance to thenew leader. In the 51 hours between Kim Jong-il’s death and its announcement to the world, a plan of action was clearly agreed at the highest levels of the North Korean government.
But it remains uncertain whether, in the long term, Kim Jong-un has the gravitas and authority to hold the country together.
In order to boost his support, North Korean newspapers have been filled with propaganda about how the new leader has cracked down on corruption, purging more than 150,000 Workers’ Party cadres for various crimes and then magnanimously forgiving them and offering them a second chance – as well as resurrecting his grandfather’s meat soup pledge.
United States’ intelligence mainly comes from North Korean refugees, who can rarely be trusted for an impartial view. But some rumours about the young Kim are persistent enough, and from a wide enough variety of sources, to be taken seriously.
A US Congressional staff member told The Sunday Telegraph that intelligence analysts have speculated, in closed-door briefings, that the younger Kim may suffer from a personality disorder. He is thought to have a “violent streak”.
Russian sources also confirmed that Kim Jong-un had undergone a drastic change since being picked as his father’s successor, from a quiet and shy child into a tough, rude and even violent man. During one reception in his country home last year, he is said to have humiliated and kicked his waiters while drunk.
He is said already to show symptoms of diabetes and heart disease, suggesting that he may share some of his father’s ill health.
One vital pillar of support will be China, North Korea’s only remaining major ally and a main source of aid and finance. The younger Kim has already visited Hu Jintao, the Chinese president, and has been accepted by Beijing.
China’s stance on North Korea remains the same, with a three-pronged policy: to provide enough aid to maintain the status quo, to build its own influence, and to encourage the country to open up, as long as the regime is not threatened.
Also behind Kim are a newly-identified “gang of seven”, a group of senior North Korean officials which has rallied around the family dynasty. Marked out by their positions of prominence during Kim Jong-il’s funeral, where some were allowed to walk beside the hearse, each of them has publicly sworn his loyalty.
The most important figure is Kim’s uncle, Jang Song-taek, promoted to full general last week. A dashing former accordion player, Jang’s life changed when he met Kim’s aunt, Kim Kyong-hui, herself an important power in the ruling family.
Now 65 years old, he is seen as a regent behind the young Kim, a key adviser who is well-connected inside the military and inside the all-powerful Organisation and Guidance department, the Workers’ Party’s human resources arm.
He is now likely to be charged with reforming the economy, and opening up to the outside world, without destabilising the regime. The other figures have all been promoted since Kim Jong-un was formally made heir in September 2010.
However, inside Pyongyang’s elite circles, mass purges are feared as the younger Kim looks to consolidate his power base. After only two years of exposure while he was fast-tracked to power, few of North Korea’s power brokers have had time to work out what to expect from their new leader, putting many on edge.
And at the end of last week, the first warning of the new regime was sounded – against anyone being “foolish” enough to expect any change in North Korea’s stance against the outside world.