North Korean state media have given clear indications that Kim's third son will succeed him.
The Korean Central News Agency on Tuesday described Kim Jong Un as a "a great person born of heaven," a propaganda term only his father Kim Jong Il and his grandfather Kim Il Sung had enjoyed. The Rodong Sinmun, the newspaper of the ruling Workers' Party, added in an editorial that Kim Jong Un is "the spiritual pillar and the lighthouse of hope" for the military and the people.
It described the twentysomething Kim as "born of Mount Paektu," one of Korea's most cherished sites andKim Jong Il's official birthplace. On Monday, the North said in a dispatch that the people and the military "have pledged to uphold the leadership of comrade Kim Jong Un" and called him a "great successor" of the country's revolutionary philosophy of juche, or self reliance.
Whether the transition would be a smooth one remained an open question, however.
South Korea's military has been put on high alert, and experts warned that the next few days could be a crucial turning point for the North, which though impoverished by economic mismanagement and repeated famine, has a relatively well-supported, 1.2 million-strong armed forces.
"The situation could become extremely volatile. What the North Korean military does in the next 24-48 hours will be decisive," said Bill Richardson, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations who has made several high-profile visits to North Korea.