SEOUL (AP) — The youngest son of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il clandestinely became a parliament member last year, another sign he is being groomed to succeed his father, South Korean news reports said Tuesday.
South Korea's main spy agency, however, quickly cast doubt on the reports.
It is widely believed that the 68-year-old Mr. Kim plans to hand power at some point to third son Kim Jong-un, though little is known about him. Speculation about the North's succession plans has intensified since the senior Kim reportedly had a stroke in 2008.
He has led North Korea since 1994 upon his father's death in a hereditary succession that was in the works for years and was the first in the communist world.
Kim Jong-un reportedly ran for a parliamentary seat in elections in March last year that were closely watched for any signs of a power shift in the secretive North. His name, however, was not on the list of Supreme People's Assembly legislators, sparking speculation he may not have run or used an alias.
On Tuesday, the mass-circulation Dong-a Ilbo newspaper quoted a high-level Western source knowledgeable about the North as saying that Kim Jong-un was elected in the rubber-stamp legislature's Constituency No. 216. The source, who was not otherwise identified, said he obtained the information from unidentified North Koreans about two months after the vote, according to the newspaper.
Another national daily — the JoongAng Ilbo — carried a similar report, saying the comments would confirm that Mr. Kim has formally entered government service after being tapped as the North's next leader.
A spokesman at South Korea's main spy agency, the National Intelligence Service, said his organization believes there is a low probability the younger Mr. Kim became a member of parliament. The spokesman declined to elaborate on the agency's opinion. He spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing agency policy.
JoongAng Ilbo also said the constituency No. 216 has a special meaning in North Korea as Kim Jong-il's birthday falls on Feb. 16. It said the Western source spoke during a meeting Monday with journalists in Seoul.
The source said the North appeared to have deliberately hid the son's election, according to Dong-a Ilbo.
The list of North Korea's 687 parliamentary members that state media released after the elections included the name of Kim Jong but it was not officially confirmed whether the person is the son using an alias, the paper said.
Not much information is available about Kim Jong-un, including his exact age, though experts say he is in his mid-20s and is reported to have studied in Switzerland. Kim Jong-il's former sushi chef said in a 2003 memoir the son looks and acts just like his father and is the leader's favorite.
Other newspapers as well as Yonhap news agency and YTN television carried similar reports. They highlight the intense interest in South Korea in the succession.
North Korean leaders hold absolute power in the impoverished country, which has active nuclear and missile programs and regularly threatens to destroy rival South Korea.
National Intelligence Service chief Won Sei-hoon told legislators last week that North Korea has launched a propaganda campaign aimed at making its 24 million people adore Kim Jong-un, such as releasing songs and poems praising him, according to lawmakers who attended the meeting.
On Saturday, North Korea said it will hold a rare Workers' Party conference in September to choose new top leaders, a move experts say may be aimed at giving Kim Jong-un a top party job.
Tension has been high on the Korean Peninsula over the deadly sinking of a South Korean warship in March that the South blames on Pyongyang. Seoul has asked the U.N. Security Council to punish Pyongyang, which flatly denies it launched any attack and warns any punishment would trigger war.