Kim Jong Il’s youngest son was named a general, signaling the start of a possible power transfer in North Korea to a man said to be in his late 20s who the regime has never previously mentioned in public.
Kim Jong Un was one of six people given the rank ahead of the biggest meeting of North Korea ruling Workers’ Party in 30 years, which starts today, the official Korean Central News Agency reported. The orders were issued yesterday by Kim Jong Il, who called on military commanders to “remain true to the party’s leadership in the future,” the state media said, without mentioning the family link.
The junior Kim’s debut supports speculation of a leadership handover that has been growing since the 68-year-old Kim Jong Il reportedly suffered a stroke in 2008. Kim Jong Il’s sister, Kim Kyong Hui, was also promoted to the rank of general, KCNA said, in what may be part of “contingency plans” should Kim Jong Un prove unsuitable, said Donald Gregg, a former U.S. ambassador to South Korea.
“It’s the first step forward in what will be a step-by-step process,” Gregg said in an interview with Bloomberg Television. “It would be almost impossible to give Kim Jong Un full powers since he is untested.”
Kim Kyong Hui, 64, is a member of the central committee of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea in charge of light industry, according to South Korea’s Unification Ministry. Her husband, Jang Song Thaek, 68, was named vice chairman of the National Defense Commission in June, making him North Korea’s second-most powerful official.
Kim Jong Il is the chairman of the National Defense Commission, North Korea’s highest government agency, and the Supreme Commander of the Korean People’s Army.
“The United States is watching developments in North Korea carefully,” Kurt Campbell, assistant secretary of state for East Asia, said yesterday in a conference call from New York after the KCNA announcement. “But frankly, it’s too early to tell, in terms of next steps, what’s going on inside the country’s leadership.”
The Worker’s Party convenes today in Pyongyang to choose its “supreme leadership body,” KCNA has said. The last such gathering in 1980 solidified Kim Jong Il’s position as heir to his father, North Korean founder Kim Il Sung.
The congress is being held behind schedule after North Korea said in June it will open in “early September.” The delay has sparked speculation Kim Jong Il’s health may be worsening.
“It seems a little hasty for Kim Jong Il to be revealing his son at such a young age, but he must have felt time is running out,” said Kim Yong Hyun, professor of North Korean studies at Seoul-based Dongguk University. “He may have his sister and brother-in-law act as his son’s shield until Kim Jong Un proves his leadership.”
Little is known about Kim Jong Un. He attended the International School of Berne in Switzerland, according to media including the Seoul-based Dong-A Ilbo newspaper.
Kim Jong Il made his second trip this year to China in late August in what analysts said was an effort to win the endorsement of his closest ally for a power transfer to his son. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao lauded the party congress as “a political event of great significance,” KCNA said Sept. 2.
North Korea may also use the party gathering to announce new policies to reinvigorate the country’s faltering economy, which was dealt a further blow this year after floods wiped out crops and damaged houses.
North Korea’s economy shrank 0.9 percent to 24.7 trillion won in 2009 after the United Nations toughened sanctions against the country for its second nuclear test in May last year, according to the Bank of Korea in Seoul. The country, which relies on outside handouts to feed its 24 million people, saw its shortages of goods worsen after a botched currency revaluation late last year.
Kim’s regime also faces stricter U.S. financial sanctions after it was accused of torpedoing a South Korean warship in March. South Korea, the North’s No. 2 trading partner, cut off most trade after the March 26 sinking of the warship Cheonan that killed 46 sailors.