By Mark McDonald
Published: September 28, 2010
SEOUL, South Korea — A series of military promotions reinforced the leading role of the armed forces in North Korean political life, as the youngest son and sister of Kim Jong-il, were made four-star generals before a landmark meeting of the Korean Workers’ Party on Tuesday.
But it was the elevation of his son, Kim Jong-un, that created the real interest and excitement among diplomats and political analysts. His promotion was the first clear and public signal that he has a serious political future in North Korea, and is perhaps on track to succeed his father as leader.
“This promotion of Kim Jong-un to four-star general carries a lot of weight in North Korea, and it has the connotation of very senior ‘top brass,’ ” said Lee Sung-yoon, a North Korea expert at the Fletcher School at Tufts University. “This is a very big deal.”
Kim Kyong-hui, the leader’s sister, who is said to be a formidable political force in her own right, also was promoted, a move that Mr. Lee said was “a bit rare” for a woman.
Mrs. Kim is the wife of Jang Seong-taek, often regarded by outside analysts as the No. 2 man in the North. Together they could serve as protectors and mentors for the younger Mr. Kim, who is just 27 or 28, as he learns the levers of power in the secretive communist state.
Mr. Kim’s learning curve could be a short one, as his father’s health has been in question since he suffered a stroke in 2008.
Kim Jong-il, 68, has had to fast-track the promotion of his son as heir apparent, many analysts say, a situation very different from his own two-decade tutelage under his father, Kim Il-sung, who died in 1994.
The last Workers’ Party gathering of this size and scope was held in 1980, when Kim Jong-il was designated as the clear successor to his father.
“This is a step toward turning Kim Jong-un into a ‘songun’ leader, a symbolic gesture of upholding him as a military leader,” said Cheong Seong-chang, a North Korea expert at the Sejong Institute near Seoul. Songun is the military-first policy adopted by Kim Jong-il, a companion philosophy to the “juche” ideology of self-reliance espoused by his father.
“This is the beginning of the process of promoting him to chief of command of the North Korean military,” Mr. Cheong added.
The younger Mr. Kim’s appointment appeared to be aimed at dispelling doubts about his lack of leadership experience, said Mr. Cheong, who has long suggested that Kim Jong-un already controlled many of the key operations of the party and military, effectively running the country in a “coalition” with his father.
It was unclear on Tuesday if Kim Jong-un would be given a top party post, and there was much speculation in the South Korean media whether he would get a politburo appointment.
Mr. Lee, the analyst, said it was not likely that the son’s designation as the future leader was a simple matter of his father declaring it so.
“They do have to sell it,” he said. “I think an open challenge is very low, but Kim Jong-il has to be very careful.”
Kurt M. Campbell, an assistant secretary of state, said in New York on Monday that the United States was “watching developments in North Korea carefully” and was talking to allies in the region “as we try to assess the meaning of what’s transpiring there.”
“But frankly,” he said, “it’s still too early to tell in terms of next steps, or in fact, what’s going on inside the country’s leadership.”
By Christian Oliver in Seoul
Published: September 28 2010 11:22 | Last updated: September 28 2010 12:26
In innocent black-and-white family photographs from decades ago, toddler Kim Jong-il stands side by side with Kyong-hui, his angel-faced younger sister.
She is still widely seen as the only person Mr Kim, the North Korean dictator, has been able to trust throughout his life.
Their bond became more public on Tuesday when she was named a four-star general along with the dictator’s son, Kim Jong-eun.
Mrs Kim, 64, is being groomed to play an important role in keeping the state alive, especially in the event her brother dies suddenly. She has been the most prominent companion on her brother’s recent trips around the country to factories, farms and operas, a signal to North Korean elites to identify her as someone to whom Kim Jong-il has confided his plans.
Moscow-educated Mrs Kim has shown a strong personality, even defying Kim Il-sung, her imposing father and the founder of the Pyongyang regime, to carry on a student romance with Chang Sung-taek, then only the leader of a music group.
Mrs Kim eventually married Mr Chang, who in June went on to become the second most important political figure in the land when he was appointed vice-chairman of the National Defence Commission, North Korea’s highest military body. He had been briefly in disgrace and the couple attracted unwelcome publicity when their daughter committed suicide in Paris in 2006. It is uncertain if they have other children.
Mrs Kim’s elevation suggests she and Mr Chang are being positioned as a power couple who will steer the succession in the event of Kim Jong-il’s death.
Still, South Korean media and Yuriko Koike, a former Japanese defence minister, have suggested Mrs Kim may be seeking power for herself or her husband. Some analysts believe this month’s ruling party congress was delayed so Kim Jong-il could strike a political compromise with her.
While a power struggle inside the nuclear-armed dictatorship is far from impossible, there is no evidence to prove whether Mrs Kim has been engaged in machinations. Now that Pyongyang has given an important public title to Kim Jong-il’s son, the state propaganda machine will most probably cast him publicly and very visibly as the dauphin.
Once the posters are up, it will be almost impossible to question Kim Jong-eun’s legitimacy.
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