The heavy-jowled Kim Jong Un looks poised to succeed his father. But he was not always the most likely: TIME looks at those in the Kim clan who may have had (or still possess) designs on the Hermit Kingdom's top job.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Il's son Kim Jong Un attends a massive military parade marking the 65th anniversary of the ruling Workers' Party in Pyongyang, North Korea, Oct. 10, 2010.
The world was introduced to the double-chinned twenty-something a year and a half ago when he was heralded as the ailing Kim Jong Il’s heir apparent, standing on a dais before massed throngs at the first “Worker’s Party Conference” held by Pyongyang in 30 years. Little is known about Jong Un. The North Korean dictator’s third and youngest son, Jong Un was considered Jong Il’s favorite, dubbed “Morning Star King” by a doting mother. According to reports, he attended a Swiss boarding school before finishing his education in North Korean military academies. Jong Un now stands poised to take up the mantle of the Great Leader, but shadows lurk: few can divine whether the portly princeling may be able to build up the same cult of personality that still surrounds his father and grandfather, Kim Il Sung — a man whom he is said to resemble. He may also face challenges to his fledgling authority from rival generals and officials within the regime.
In a picture taken on June 4, 2010 Kim Jong Nam, the eldest son of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, waves after an interview with South Korean media representatives in Macau.
The eldest son — Jong Nam’s mother was Song Hye Rim, a celebrity North Korean actress who was initially Kim Jong Il’s secret mistress — Jong Nam was groomed for succession until the awkward day in 2001 when he was seized by Japanese authorities for trying to enter the country on a forged Dominican Republic passport. Jong Nam allegedly told police there ahead of being deported to China that he simply wanted to visit Tokyo Disneyland. The incident, coupled with the rumored defection of Jong Nam’s mother (she died in Russia in 2002), led to his estrangement from his father. Jong Nam would take up residence in the casino mecca of Macau and gain notoreity for his gambling habits and hard-drinking. In 2007, TIME and Global Spin’s Austin Ramzy and Ishaan Tharoor came across his house tucked away in a quiet gated community on the black-sanded island of Coloane. No one answered the door, but hung prominently by a window was a picture of a sunflower bending to the sun’s rays — a sign, even in reported exile, of Jong Nam’s filial duty to his now deceased father.
A man points at a computer screen in Seoul on February 16, 2011 showing a man believed to be North Korean leader's second son, Kim Jong Chol, as he enters a concert for British guitarist Eric Clapton in Singapore on February 14, 2011.
We only have snippets of information of Kim Jong Chol, the middle son in the family and the oldest born to Kim Jong Il’s favored, third mistress, Ko Young Hui. Jong Chol was given prominent positions in the Hermit Kingdom’s Orwellian-named Organization & Guidance and Propaganda & Agitation departments, a sign that he was being groomed for bigger things. But according to a memoir published by an anonymous Japanese chef who once served the regime, Kim Jong Il looked upon his middle son with distaste, considering him too “unmanly” and “effeminate” to take up his crown. He was allegedly spotted, as pictured above, attending an Eric Clapton concert in Singapore earlier this year.
This picture released from North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency on July 10, 2011 shows North Korean leader Kim Jong Il (C) posing with staff, including a woman who is believe to be Kim Seol Song, second left, after inspecting the commodity exhibition at the Pyongyang Department Store No. 1 in Pyongyang.
Kim Jong Il’s eldest child — a daughter — Seol Song lives in the shadow of her three male siblings. Her mother, a daughter of a high-ranking military official, was handpicked to be Kim Jong Il’s partner. But she would be shunted aside in later years. According to reports, Seol Song remained ever loyal to her father and supervised many of his official trips, accompanying him regularly.
Kim Kyong Hui, younger sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, poses with the newly elected members of the central leadership body of the Workers' Party of Korea (WPK) and the participants in the WPK Conference, at the plaza of the Kumsusan Memorial Palace in Pyongyang in this picture released by the North's KCNA news agency September 30, 2010.
Kim Jong Il’s only sister, known to be a cantankerous alcoholic in her 60s, was promoted alongside Kim Jong Un in 2010 to the rank of a four-star general, a top officer in the North Korean military. The move was seen as a measure to consolidate power and influence among the Kims, at a time when the heir apparent — Jong Un — seemed unready and weak. Depending on what account you listen to, it was also either a way of promoting Kyong Hui’s husband, the influential general Chang Sung Taek is, or mitigating against his own direct influence.
Undated picture shows Jang Song Taek, 63, a member of the National Defence Commission and North Korean leader Kim Jong il's brother-in-law, in this picture released by the North Korea's official news agency KCNA on April 10, 2009.
Kim Jong Il’s brother-in-law, Sung Taek is suspected by some as being the real force behind the regime, the secretive puppet master in the state most shrouded by secrets. It was thought that Sung Taek would play regent to Jong Un, allowing the third Kim to rule North Korea time to grow into his position. But, according to TIME’s Bill Powell, that may not be true. Instead, Sung Taek may be at the heart of an internal palace struggle, one which might have put him even at odds with his own wife, Kim Kyong Hui. After all, it’s reported that Kim Il Sung — father of Kim Jong Il and architect of the North Korean state — disapproved of Sung Taek’s marriage into the family.