Report: NKoreans mark birthday of leader’s son

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SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Koreans pledged allegiance to leader Kim Jong Il’s youngest son on Friday by marking his birthday, a news report said, amid speculation he is being groomed to take over the nuclear-armed country.

North Korea also announced the designation of Kim Jong Un’s birthday as a national holiday during a meeting of senior officials in Pyongyang late Thursday, according to the Daily NK, a Seoul-based online news outlet that focuses on North Korean affairs. It cited an unidentified North Korean resident.

Little has been confirmed about Kim Jong Un, including his age. He is believed to be in his 20s.

Kenji Fujimoto, a Japanese former sushi chef for Kim Jong Il, said Kim Jong Un was born on Jan. 8, 1983, according to Cheong Seong-chang, a senior analyst at the private Sejong Institute think tank near Seoul.

North Korea’s two major national holidays are the birthdays of the country’s founder, Kim Il Sung, and his son and current leader Kim Jong Il.

According to the online report, the birthday announcement delivered Thursday also urged North Korea’s 24 million people to help Kim Jong Un become the new leader.

Kim Jong Il, who has three sons, has controlled the reclusive, impoverished nation with absolute authority since he assumed power upon his father’s death in 1994.

Speculation on who will lead North Korea has intensified since mid-2008 when Kim Jong Il reportedly suffered a stroke. It has eased somewhat since he began making public appearances and held talks last year with former President Bill Clinton in a landmark meeting that led to the release of two detained U.S. journalists.

Kim’s health is a focus of intense media attention because there could be a power struggle and instability in the nuclear-armed nation if he were to die without naming a successor.

North Korean soldiers and workers pledged their loyalty to Kim Jong Un on Friday, the Daily NK reported.

Open Radio for North Korea, a Seoul-based station specializing in North Korean news, also reported that North Korea is believed to have held a senior officials’ meeting in Pyongyang and lectures in other parts of the country on Thursday to celebrate the younger Kim’s birthday. It also cited an unidentified North Korean resident.

The news outlets did not provide details of how they contacted their sources. Despite strict government controls, some North Koreans are able to use mobile phones through Chinese communication networks to the outside world.

The National Intelligence Service, South Korea’s top spy agency, said it could not confirm the reports.

North Korea’s state news agency did not mention the birthday.