SEOUL (AP) — The resemblance is striking: the full cheeks and quick smile, the confident gait, the habit of gesturing with both hands when he speaks.
North Korea’s young new leader, Kim Jong-un, appears to be fashioning himself as the reincarnation of Kim Il-sung, his grandfather and the nation’s founder, as he seeks to solidify his hold on the nation of 24 million in the wake of his father’s death last month.
Unlike Kim Jong-il, who sequestered himself for three years of mourning before formally taking up the mantle of leadership, Kim Jong-un is moving swiftly to demonstrate a decisiveness perhaps aimed at dispelling concerns about his ability to rule. He is only in his late 20s and made his public debut as his father’s anointed successor just 15 months ago, far less time than the 20 years Kim Jong-il had to prepare to lead.
With the world watching, Kim Jong-un has tread confidently down the “red silk carpet” laid before him by his father, as one analyst put it, using family tradition as his guideposts. Kim Il-sung has served as his main muse as he seeks to consolidate power and loyalty.
“The image of a young smiling Kim Il-sung is deeply engraved in North Korean people’s minds. It is the image of a young general who liberated the nation from Japan’s imperial rule,” said Ahn Chan-il, a political scientist at the World Institute for North Korea Studies in South Korea who was born in North Korea. “Kim Jong-un is borrowing from that. Kim Il-sung is resurrected in the looks and behavior of Kim Jong Un.”
Two years ago, the world knew so little about the young man that even the South Korean government was spelling his name wrong. Here’s a look at what we know now.
Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il were characterized in North Korea as having a divine right to rule, and Kim Jong-un is leaning on this legacy as he shores up support for a third generation of Kim leadership.
Kim Il-sung founded the country in 1948, three years after Korea was divided into the Soviet-backed north and the U.S.-allied south. When he died in 1994, Kim Jong-il took over in what was the first hereditary succession in the communist world.
“His power comes from the bloodline,” said Kim Gwang-in, head of research at the North Korea Strategy Center in Seoul.
Plans for Kim Jong-un to succeed his father were laid out after Kim Jong-il suffered a stroke in 2008. As recently as October, Kim Jong-il issued an order to elevate his son to supreme commander of the Korean People’s Army, the Korean Central News Agency reported late last month.
“Kim Jong-il laid a red silk carpet, and Kim Jong-un only needs to walk on it,” said Jeung Young-tae of the Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul.
The most important holidays in North Korea are the birthdays of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, and it’s likely that Kim Jong-un’s birthday will become a national holiday as well. Exactly when he was born has never been revealed, but it’s widely believed that he will celebrate a birthday on Sunday.
In recent days, North Korea’s state broadcaster has aired tributes and odes to Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, as well as the first documentary footage of Kim Jong-un and a tune composed to prepare for his leadership: “Footsteps.”