North Korean state media published the first official images Thursday of Kim Jong Un, the youngest son of leader Kim Jong Il and heir apparent of the impoverished, nuclear-armed state.
A photo of senior Workers' Party officials appeared on the front page of Thursday's edition of the authoritarian regime's main Rodong Sinmun newspaper, two days after the party concluded its biggest political gathering in 30 years to elect new leaders.
An article accompanying the photo listed the names of those in the picture, which was taken outside the Kumsusan Memorial Palace in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang, where the embalmed body of the country's founder Kim Il Sung lies in state. The photo appeared to include about 1,000 people, who posed in front of the palace underneath a huge portrait of Kim Il Sung.
State television later broadcast video of the party meeting held Tuesday, including images of Kim Jong Un, who was positioned on the front row during a speech and shown standing and vigorously clapping with other delegates at the cavernous venue.
The still and moving images confirmed what many analysts suspected for the past two years: that Kim Jong Un has been anointed to succeed his father and carry the family's rule into a third generation.
Cheong Seong-chang, an expert on North Korean politics at the Sejong Institute think tank near Seoul, said the photo signals a significant change in how the regime will be run.
"Now Kim Jong Un will manage all domestic affairs and Kim Jong Il will handle the bigger issues ... and just provide guidance on the rest," he said. "From now on we'll see and hear more and more about Kim Jong Un than we will about Kim Jong Il."
The round-faced Kim Jong Un - unsmiling with his hair combed straight back - was one of the officials named in the photo caption and was sitting in the front row near his father with a military officer between them. In the photo, the 20-something Kim bears a resemblance to both his father and grandfather. Other similar photos were carried on inside pages.
The release of the photos, some of which were also carried by the state news agency, comes after the younger Kim earlier this week was handed top military and party posts at a Workers' Party conference.
Kim Jong Un was promoted by Kim Jong Il to the rank of, the state news agency reported, the clearest signal yet that the younger Kim is on track to succeed his father in ruling the impoverished country.
Lee Jong-joo, a spokeswoman at South Korea's Unification Ministry, which handles relations with North Korea, said a photo of Kim Jong Un had never been published before. She said the young man sitting near Kim Jong Il appears to be the son.
The official Korean Central News Agency announced Tuesday that Kim Jong Un had been promoted to a four-star general in the Korean People's Army - the first mention of his name in the country's tightly controlled state media. State media have yet to offer any description or biographical information about Kim Jong Un, or even to refer to him as the leader's son. The younger Kim has two older brothers, Kim Jong Nam and Kim Jong Chol, who appear to have lost out in the succession scenario.
Kim Jong Un was also mentioned in several dispatches Wednesday announcing the names of people who were given posts at a rare meeting of the ruling Workers' Party held the day before. In addition to his military title, he was made a member of the organization's governing central committee and was also named to its military commission.
Several purported photos of the younger Kim have circulated for some time, mostly obtained and published by Japanese media. Kim Jong Il's former Japanese chef says Kim Jong Un resembles his father in looks, tastes and personality, going so far as to call him a "spitting image."
Kim Jong Il, 68, took over as the leader of North Korea in 1994 when his father Kim Il Sung died of heart failure in what became the first hereditary succession in the communist world. He is believed to have suffered a stroke two years ago and concerns about possible political instability in the country - which has active nuclear and missile programs - should he die without having designated a successor are a focus of regional security concerns.
Kim Jong Il, who visited key ally China in August, was reportedly accompanied on the trip by Kim Jong Un, though that has yet to be confirmed. The trip spurred speculation the elder Kim may have been introducing his son to Chinese officials to win their understanding on the succession.
Underscoring the importance of the relationship, a North Korean delegation led by Choe Thae Bok, a top Workers' Party official, departed Thursday for China, KCNA reported in a brief dispatch. No additional details were given.
South Korea's Yonhap news agency reported the visit could be designed to explain the results of the party conference to Chinese officials.