He’s thought to be 27 years old. Or maybe it’s 28. He may or may not have gone to school in Switzerland. And although the ruling Korean Workers’ Party has been lecturing North Koreans about him in ideological training sessions for more than a year, few dare mention his name in public.
Even as the party convenes, and is expected to elevate the youngest son of 68-year-old Kim Jong Il to the Politburo as a step toward taking over from his father, Kim Jong Eun is so unknown that he probably could walk through the streets of Pyongyang without anyone looking twice. Only one confirmed photograph has been released, in which he appears to be about 12 years old.
That has left the world’s news media scrambling for an updated image.
When South Korean intelligence reported last month that young Kim was accompanying his father on a trip to China, packs of photographers and reporters, most of them Japanese and South Korean, set off in hot pursuit.
“In this case, Kim Jong Il was definitely No. 2. The photo everybody wanted was Kim Jong Eun. That would have been the real victory,” said a Chinese photographer, who asked not to be named because he previously had been arrested while trying to photograph the family.
The photographer did manage to catch up with Kim’s entourage outside a hotel in the northeastern Chinese city of Changchun and snapped a photo of a young man seated behind a partly opened curtain in a Maybach limousine.
“In the end, we didn’t run the photograph because we didn’t know who it was, since nobody knows what Kim Jong Eun looks like,” the photographer said. “Anyway, my editor said the guy was too good-looking to be Kim Jong Il’s son.”
The South Korean government said this week that it wasn’t sure whether the younger Kim was on the trip after all.
What Kim Jong Eun looks like is just one of the many mysteries. Even by the standards of the aptly named Hermit Kingdom, the youngest Kim is a cipher, a figure so intangible that he sometimes seems a phantom.
References in the North Korean media are as oblique as riddles, praising the “Young General” or the “Brilliant Comrade.” A poem printed last week in the official Rodong Shinmun newspaper that apparently referred to Kim Jong Eun spoke of “footsteps that have perfectly inherited the mettle and vigor of our general.”
Funny thing is that pictures of Kim Jong Eun have been printed by the millions.
Defector groups in Seoul say North Korea’s official Mansudae Art Studio prepared 10 million such images in March in preparation for the third-generation leader’s picture to be installed next to the obligatory portraits of Kim Jong Il and his father, Kim Il Sung, the Communist regime’s founder.
Ha Tae-keung, head of Open Radio for North Korea, a Seoul-based news service and radio station, said he’s been getting telephone calls from a shadowy group of North Koreans in China offering to sell one of the official portraits for $50,000.
“Who knows? I think it could be real,” Ha said. “In any case, it’s too expensive. Maybe the Japanese will buy them.”
The caution is warranted.
In June 2009, Asahi Television of Japan aired what it said was an “exclusive photo” of the young Kim. It turned out to be the image of a 40-year-old South Korean construction worker whose photo had been downloaded from the Internet and sold to the Japanese for $1,600. (The construction worker is now suing the television station for “emotional distress.”)
Mainichi Daily News published a close-up of a well-dressed young man with full cheeks and pursed lips who’d been pictured in the Rodong Shinmun next to Kim Jong Il during a tour of a steel factory. It turned out that the man they’d identified as Kim Jong Eun was the factory’s technical manager. (Japan’s NTV took a safer approach: The network hired a police artist to prepare a sketch.)
The Blick am Abend, a Swiss tabloid, goofed big time last year with a shot of South Korean boy band pop star Yesung (whose real name is the same as Kim Jong Eun’s) in a story about the succession.
Many others have been publishing photos of a grinning teenager fooling around with friends at the International School of Bern — not actually Kim Jong Eun, but probably his less-reclusive older brother Kim Jong Chol.
The confusion is understandable: In the late 1990s, two boys believed to be Kim Jong Il’s sons came to Switzerland to study under the guise of being children of employees of the North Korean Embassy in Bern. Their passports identified them as “Pak Chol,” thought to be Kim Jong Chol, and “Pak Un,” suspected of being Kim Jong Eun.
Even the Swiss government has been unable to say for sure whether the boys, among several North Korean Embassy children attending Swiss schools, were in fact Kim Jong Il’s sons, according to diplomatic sources.
The International School of Bern, which the older boy attended, and the nearby public school in the Bern suburb of Liebefeld, attended by the younger, have been overrun by reporters, most of them Japanese.
“We’ve had helicopters flying over our roof, film crews outside,” complained Catherine Hofer, office manager at the international school. “Some days I’ll get 23 telephone calls from all over the world. Never ever ever have we had such interest in a student.”
All the secrecy around Kim Jong Eun appears to be tactical, carefully calculated to build up the charisma he may be lacking and to imbue him with the near-supernatural powers North Korean propaganda attributes to his father and grandfather.
“It is the nature of these kinds of authoritarian systems. People respect a power that is shrouded in mystery,” said Andrei Lankov, a Russian-born North Korea expert at Kookmin University in Seoul.
North Korea watchers believe that Kim Jong Eun’s older brothers may have jinxed their chances of being tapped as successor by too much public exposure.
Kim Jong Nam, the 39-year-old eldest son, was widely photographed in 2001 when he was arrested trying to sneak into Japan with a false passport in an attempt to visit Tokyo Disneyland. Kim Jong Chol was photographed attending several Eric Clapton concerts in Germany in 2006.
As for Kim Jong Eun, the only confirmed image made public is an autographed photo that he gave in the 1990s to a sushi chef who was working for his father. The chef, Kenji Fujimoto, later described the teenager in a memoir as a “chip off the old block, a spitting image of his father in terms of face, body shape and personality.”
“I’m not sure about that,” counters Ha, the head of Open Radio. He says he was told by an excellent source that the new leader is much taller than his 5-foot-2 father, standing nearly 5 feet 8, weighing about 165 pounds and favoring military-type brush cuts.
“We’re told he’s much better looking than his father,” Ha said.
Times staff writer John M. Glionna is Seoul contributed to this report. Ethan Kim of the Times’ Seoul Bureau also contributed.