The progress into North Korea's public consciousness of the favoured son of leader Kim Jong-il, designated to take over the family's monopoly on power, has been glacially slow. But recent clues about his status, in a country whose carefully controlled people have learnt to rely on hints and inferences leaked by the state, are pregnant with meaning.
A few weeks ago the central news agency reported an astronomical observation to which watchers of North Korea have given an astrological interpretation. It described how the "morning star" - Venus - had "shed an unusually bright light" on the lake that fills the crater on Mount Paektu. The reported planetary event occurred on the 26th or 27th birthday (even such facts are elusive) of Kim Jong-un, Kim Jong-il's youngest son, who is expected to succeed his father.
It is in this roundabout way that information on crucial events is communicated in an impoverished, paranoid place cut off almost entirely from the world, where all media and communications are directed by the state. Since the ending of the Korean conflict in 1953, the country has been in thrall to a personality cult initially set up around Kim Jong-il's father - Kim Il-sung - and his Stalinist notion of resilience and independence, known as juche.
In a state where virtually everything is secret, the communication of important information by means of metaphor has become such a prominent feature that it has earned its own description - "semi-esoteric communication" - first applied to North Korea's subtle use of its mass media by the former CIA analyst Morgan Clippinger almost 30 years ago.
What Clippinger was then describing was the emergence of Kim Jong-il from the shadow of his father, a process far more drawn out and carefully orchestrated than the current succession.
"When Kim Jong-il first began his rise, 30 years ago," says Aidan Foster-Carter, a North Korea expert at Leeds University, "the process started when he was in his twenties, working for a department of the central committee. By his thirties he was on the central committee itself and the media was talking about the 'party centre' - which was a reference to Kim Jong-il. He first appears in public in 1980. And that is the last time the Workers' party has a congress. He is exposed to the public for 14 years before he finally takes over."
In the present case, however, with a substantial question mark over the health of the Dear Leader, Kim Jong-il, who is variously suspected of having suffered cancer or a stroke or both, the succession process appears to have been accelerated, even if the arcane means of bringing it about have not changed.
"There are questions," says Foster-Carter, "such as why Kim Jong-il did not bother to manage his own succession until now. We did not even know about the existence of this son until his father's sushi chef [Kenji Fujimoto - a Japanese man writing under a pen name] wrote about his experiences."
Other analysts have, however, noted a stop-start media campaign to legitimise, if not Kim Jong-un's exclusive claim, then the principle that one of Kim Jong-il's three sons should follow him. That campaign stretches back almost a decade to the publication in a North Korean newspaper of a florid political essay in 2001 entitled "A Brilliant Succession", which underscored the father-son inheritance as a Korean tradition. Other hints focused on Kim Jong-un began to follow. There was an essay that identified the ideal average age of youth leaders as "25", then Kim Jong-un's age, and a children's television programme, The Good Heart of the Third Child, which emphasised the moral virtues of the third child - Kim Jong-un's position in his family.
Since then Kim Jong-un's name has emerged increasingly in reports. It has been said that he has been named "Brilliant Comrade" and appointed to the National Defence Commission. Yonhap, the South Korean news agency, has said he has already been appointed as the successor, the latest embodiment of Kim Il-sung's "revolutionary family".
But it is how he has been subtly introduced to North Koreans that remains even more fascinating than the speculation in the West. Around the time of his birthday, Daily NK, an organisation based in South Korea's capital, Seoul, which monitors events in the north, reported a "central conference" in Pyongyang and other "commemorative events", including "lectures for residents" usually reserved for Kim Jong-il's birthday or that of the Great Leader, Kim Il-sung, who died in 1994.
In what is seen as yet another strand of the present thrust of "semi-esoteric communication", an official New Year's Day editorial published in all North Korea's newspapers extolled the virtues of "youth" as "a shock brigade in the great revolutionary upsurge".
"Precisely what is going on at the centre of power in North Korea, I don't think anybody really knows," says one foreigner who until recently lived in Pyongyang's tiny community of foreign nationals, which rarely exceeds 120 people, including diplomats and aid workers. He describes a fantasy world depicted in the country's media. Explaining the complex allusions used at the time of Kim Jung-un's birthday, he says: "The last thing that North Koreans can cope with is hard fact. Fantasy is needed. In media terms, you cannot write about the real world, so everything is very vague." But despite the cult of personality built up around the Great Leader, and then the Dear Leader, North Koreans are given no information about the family. "When you ask why people do not know, the answer, inevitably, is that people do not need to know."
He believes the flurry of semi-esoteric communication now going on can be explained in one of two ways. "It is either because the decision has already been taken and it is designed to acclimatise North Koreans to the succession. The last thing that is needed is a sudden shock. The alternative explanation is that this reflects an attempt by one faction to impose its choice." But he is uncertain even what factions exist, only that shifts in policy backwards and forwards are suggestive to outsiders of an internal process of push-and-pull.
He believes, however - as does Foster-Carter - that the use of astrology, as in the published "events" surrounding Kim Jong-un's birthday, are reserved for "the big boys to build up their case". He says: "What ordinary people look for to explain what is going on are these kinds of subtle messages. And it is amazing that, in a place without IT, without mobile phones [recalled by the government in 2004 after a brief experiment], the word gets around amazingly quickly."
The efforts to ensure acceptance of Kim Jong-un may also reflect the difficulties Kim Il-sung had in having Kim Jong-il accepted. He was apparently regarded at the time of the last succession as "too feminine" and "decadent" - words that have been applied to Kim Jong-un's elder brother, Jong-chul.