By Jack Kim and Jeremy Laurence
SEOUL (Reuters) - Reclusive North Korea is preparing for a third generation of Kim family rule, with the young and inexperienced Kim Jong-un poised to take over from his father to run the autocratic state born out of the Cold War.
The 27 or 28-year-old Kim is taking the next big step to succeeding leader Kim Jong-il by visiting China, introducing himself to the destitute North's main benefactor, possibly one of the most crucial diplomatic moves he will ever make, with South Korean media reporting he had crossed the border.
"This will be the move that goes beyond the bilateral ties between the two but one that proclaims to the rest of the world China's support for the North's succession, a key backing by the North's guardian state," said Yang Moo-min of the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul.
"The rest of the world is going to have to look at someone who is basically a kid as having China's support to be the North's next leader."
The youngest of the leader's three sons, little is known about Kim, not even his age. He was most likely born in 1984.
His name in Chinese characters translates as "righteous cloud," while the media refers to him as the "the young general." Educated in Switzerland, he is thought to speak English and German, and bears a striking resemblance to his grandfather, the North's founder, Kim Il-sung.
Analysts say the two attacks on the peninsula last year, which killed 50 South Koreans, were aimed at winning the army's support for a continuation of dynastic rule and underscored an intent to maintain the state's military-first policy.
Experts say the young Kim will likely follow the same militaristic path, maintaining a strong grip over one of the world's largest armies and pressing on with a nuclear weapons programme in the face of international outrage.
Last year, the young dauphin was officially anointed as leader-in-waiting when his father made him a 4-star general and gave him a prominent political post. But for added security, Kim promoted his sister and her husband to top positions to create a powerful triumvirate to run the family dynasty.
Despite speculation that Kim Jong-il's rule was nearing its end, after he reportedly suffered a stroke in 2008, the "Dear Leader" has increased his workload over the past six months and he now appears physically stronger than a year ago.
John Delury and Chung-in Moon of Yonsei University say that it is wishful thinking on the part of Seoul to think regime change is imminent as reports from foreign visitors over the past year reveal no overt signs of crisis or instability.
"Despite economic hardship, food shortages, and a welter of sanctions, the Kim Jong Il regime seems stable, and the succession process is, by all appearances, taking place smoothly," they wrote in an article published in April.
Moreover, the two scholars say China is actively engaged on diplomatic and economic levels in supporting North Korea's survival, stability, and development.
China prefers the status quo on the peninsula, worried that if the South takes over the North, the South would bring its U.S. military ally to the Chinese border.
CLOAK OF SECRECY
The most frequently viewed photograph of Jong-un before his emergence last year was of him as an 11-year-old. But recent pictures and footage of him show a heavy-set young man with his hair clipped short to resemble the young leader Kim Il-sung.
There is a question over whether his late mother, a Japanese-born professional dancer called Ko Yong-hui, was Kim Jong-il's official wife or mistress -- an issue that might weigh on his legitimate right to replace his father.
Even by intensely secretive North Korean standards, remarkably little is known about the son, whose youth is also a potential problem in a society that values seniority.
Kim Jong-il was very publicly named heir by his father, Kim Il-sung, but he has studiously avoided repeating the process.
None of his three sons had been mentioned in state media, much of whose efforts are focused on eulogizing the current leader and his father, the "eternal president," who died in 1994.
After taking over, Kim Jong-il has seen his state's economy grow weaker and a famine in the 1990s kill about one million of his people, while he has advocated a military-first policy.
In a book about his time as chef to the ruling household, Kenji Fujimoto of Japan said that of the three sons, the youngest Kim most resembles his father.
He is also said to have a ruthless streak and the strongest leadership skills of the three. He is also thought to be his father's favorite.
(Editing by David Chance and Robert Birsel)