Fueling speculation over who will lead North Korea after Kim Jong Il, South Korea's Yonhap News agency reported this week that Kim had nominated his youngest son, Kim Jong-Un.
But analysts and North Korea watchers played down the report, saying it was one of many rumors that had been swirling around ever since the 66-year-old leader Kim reportedly suffered a stroke last year.
"It is essential to take a careful approach to these rumors," said Park Jung-Ran, senior researcher at Seoul National University. "Every time tension arises regarding North Korea's nuclear issue, these stories repeatedly come and go."
Until recently, the most likely scenario had been that either Kim's first son, Kim Jong-Nam, 38, or his second son, Kim Jong-Chul, 29, would succeed as the figurehead, with endorsement from senior Communist Party leaders.
Jong-Nam was born to the leader's first wife, now deceased, who had been married at the time, making him an illegitimate son. He became known to the world when he was caught with a fake Dominican passport in Japan attempting to visit Tokyo Disneyland in 2001. The second son, Jong-Chul, was seen as a plausible heir after he took an official post within the Workers' Party in 2007.
Yonhap's report came as a surprise, since the youngest son, Kim Jong-Un, is only 26 years old, and little is known about him. "He is still too young to lead North Korea. As long as Kim Jong Il is alive at this stage, he won't be able to take over nor share any sort of ruling power," said Jeung Young-Tai, senior researcher at the Korea Institute for National Unification, who closely monitors North Korea's succession matters.
The report cited an "unidentified intelligence source" saying the Workers' Party leaders were notified of this new decision around Jan. 8, and the news is rapidly spreading down to provincial organizations. Yonhap also noted that if so, North Korea would be the first country in modern history to be ruled by three generations of dictators.
Jong-Un was born to Kim's third late wife, Ko Yong-hi, who died of breast cancer in 2004. Educated at the International School of Berne with his older brother, Jong-Chul, he is known to be a fan of NBA basketball. One of the few witnesses who have met the rumored successor, Fujimoto Genji, a former Japanese private chef for Kim Jong Il, wrote in his tell-all book that Jung-Un was active, competitive and possessed leadership qualities compared to Jong-Chul.
According to Fujimoto's memoir, the Dear Leader disapproved of the elder saying he was "like a girl" but the younger "resembles his father in every way," often taking the seat at events right next to the ruler.
Last year, numerous South Korean news media, citing unnamed sources, had reported that Kim Jung-Un, like his father, is overweight and suffering from diabetes and high blood pressure.
Yonhap reported that while at Berne, Jung-Un rarely went out of the house upon directives from his parents who feared their son might be tainted by Switzerland's capitalist society. When eating out, he was always accompanied by the then-North Korean ambassador Rhee Chul but lived with North Korean musicians from the state orchestra to keep him entertained.
After his return to Pyongyang from Switzerland in 1998, Jung-Un reportedly attended Kim Il Sung Military University from 2002 to 2007 but did not take any specific role either within the Workers' Party or the military. He was known to have accompanied Kim Jong Il at visits to military sites thereafter in line with North Korea's "military-first policy" and have been trained by military generals.
"North Korea has kept this son in the dark strictly controlling any pictures or information on him," said Seo Yu-Seok at the Institute for North Korean Studies.
But analysts said it was still too early to give weight to the Yonhap report given Kim Jung-Un's short-lived and unknown career. Kihl-Jae Ryoo, professor at Kyungnam University of North Korean Studies said that even within the autocratic state the power structure is such that a future leader must gain support from the senior bureaucrats with respectable accomplishments.
"Kim Jong Il is a man of formality," said Ryoo. "Like himself, he would want his heir to be officially nominated as a political member from the politburo of the Communist Party before appointing any of his sons."
Qree Yeon and Youmi Kim contributed to the reporting of this story.