Kim Jong Il Puts Octogenarians Near Heir-Apparent Son

Kim Jong Il Stacks Octogenarians Around Son in Succession
An undated photograph released by Korean Central News Agency shows Kim Jong Il, leader of North Korea, right in the front row, posing with other key officials. Source: Yonhap News via Bloomberg

Kim Jong Il, North Korea’s ailing 68-year-old leader, urged ally China in August to help him “hand over to the rising generation.” This week he installed a set of leaders whose average age is 77.

He did appoint his youngest son, Kim Jong Un, to his first party post amid speculation the younger Kim, reported to be in his late 20s, was the likely heir. Most top jobs, though, were filled by cadres two generations older at the meeting of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea, the first in three decades.

The younger Kim, reported by South Korean and American media to have been educated in Switzerland and to be a fan of the National Basketball Association, thus may govern with people who fought for his grandfather against the U.S.-led forces in the Korean War.

“Kim Jong Il tried to set the groundwork for transferring power to his son, while showing his power remains intact, backed by the loyalty of the old guard,” said Yang Moo Jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul. The leader “can’t abandon his father’s people.”

Kim Jong Il also promoted a handful of allies from his own generation to act as guardians, such as party functionary Choe Ryong Hae, 60, and career soldier Ri Yong Ho, 67. That should buy the heir time to cement his power base and learn the ropes of government, said Georgy Toloraya, a professor who studies North Korea at the Russian Academy of Science in Moscow.

Professional Help

“He will be assisted by professionals like Ri,” Toloraya said. “Elder leaders won’t be inclined to challenge his authority unless he takes some reckless steps.”

The elder Kim began his ascent through the party 30 years before the death of his father, the nation’s founder, Kim Il Sung. This transition may have less time. The dictator looked thin and gaunt in a photograph published yesterday that also showed Kim Jong Un in public for the first time.

Kim Jong Il’s sister, Kim Kyong Hui, 64, was elected as a permanent member of the Politburo. Her husband, Jang Song Thaek, 64, was promoted to vice chairman of the National Defense Commission in June, making him the No. 2 government official. At this week’s party meeting, Jang was also appointed as an alternate member of the Politburo and a member of the Central Military Commission.

“These are the people who will be Kim Jong Un’s guards until he rises to the throne,” Yang said. The younger Kim attended school in German-speaking Switzerland and followed the NBA, the Washington Post reported in July 2009.

Pioneer’s Role

In the photo session with the new Politburo members, Kim Jong Il said he believed they would “play their pioneer’s role in the revolution,” the Korean Central News Agency said.

Yang Hyong Sop, elected as one of the 17 permanent members of the party’s Politburo, the nation’s most powerful body, turns 85 today, according to official biographies of the Politburo members published by KCNA. When fellow Politburo members Choe Yong Rim and Choe Thae Bok turn 80 in the following two months, the number of octogenarians in the group will rise to 10.

Kim Jong Il remains the second-youngest permanent Politburo member. In a regime where falling from favor can lead to a death penalty, members’ longevity may signal a lack of opposition to the son’s ascent.

Fatal Failures

Pak Nam Gi, director of the party’s financial planning office, was executed this year for his role in a botched currency revaluation, according to South Korea’s Yonhap News and Free North Korea Radio. Railway Minister Kim Yong Sam was shot after hungry workers stole metal and sold it for scrap, Radio Free Asia reported. So Kwan Hui, the party secretary for agricultural affairs, was executed in 1997 after famine killed millions of people, South Korea’s Chosun Ilbo newspaper said.

Ri and Choe Ryong Hae are both younger than their leader.

Vice Marshal Ri was elected to one of the five positions on the presidium of the Politburo, headed by Kim Jong Il. He was also named vice chairman of the Central Military Commission, where he’ll sit alongside Kim Jong Un.

Choe is a provincial party chief whose father fought alongside Kim Il Sung in northern China, according to the older Kim’s memoirs. Together with Kim Jong Un, Choe was named a four-star general on the eve of this week’s party meeting.

Choe was among the group that visited China in late August with Kim Jong Il. China is North Korea’s largest trading partner and main political ally, having fought alongside the North and against the U.S. in the 1950-1953 Korean War.

Trip to China

North Korea sent a Workers’ Party delegation led by Choe Thae Bok to Beijing yesterday, KCNA reported, with no reference to other officials on the trip. Kim Jong Il’s second trip to China this year in August had sparked speculation he may have sought the ally’s endorsement of his son as the heir.

While China and North Korea share similar political systems, the Chinese Communist Party insists its Politburo officials retire before 70. China’s President and Secretary General of the Communist Party Hu Jintao is 67, ruling him out of standing for any new position when the party convenes in 2012.

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