“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.”
SEOUL, South Korea — The youngest son of Kim Jong-il, North Korea’s reclusive leader, has been promoted to a military general, that country’s official Korean Central News Agency reported early Tuesday, the clearest sign yet that he is in line to succeed his father as the country’s leader. A brief dispatch by KCNA said the son, Kim Jong-un, and five others had been made generals in the Korea People’s Army. It was the first time that KCNA or any North Korean news outlet had mentioned the son, who is either 27 or 28, by name.
The new generals’ roster also included Kim Kyong-hui, the elder Mr. Kim’s sister. She is the wife of Jang Seong-taek, often regarded by outside analysts as the No. 2 man in the North and a potential caretaker for the government should Kim Jong-il, 68, who is in failing health, suddenly become incapacitated. The news came hours after delegates to a rare gathering of the ruling Workers’ Party arrived in the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, on Monday as the party began final preparations for a meeting that could provide further signals about Kim Jong-un’s debut. Photographs from Pyongyang showed banners and posters announcing the meeting, and there has been heavy speculation in the South Korean news media about the possible anointing of the younger Mr. Kim.
Kurt M. Campbell, an assistant secretary of state, told reporters 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, it’s still too early to tell in terms of next steps, or in fact, what’s going on inside the country’s leadership,” he said.
Little is known about Kim Jong-un, and most of what is has been culled from defectors and Web sites that collect information from sources in the North. In the North Korean news media he has been referred to as the “Young General,” “Youth Captain Kim” and even “C.N.C.,” short for computer numerical control, to demonstrate his bona fides as a leader for the 21st century. He is said to have attended boarding or military school in Switzerland and spent several years in the military.
Korea experts had long tapped his brother, Kim Jong-nam, 39, as the most likely heir, until he took an ill-fated trip to Tokyo Disneyland using a fake passport. All the same, Kim Jong-un might have remained an obscure figure, but his father had a stroke in 2008, quickening the timetable for the succession.
In a conservative Confucian society that reveres age, selling the public and, more important, the elite on a leader in his 20s is not easy. State-controlled media seem to be making a virtue of necessity, emphasizing not only Kim Jong-un’s computer expertise but also his freshness and youth, circulating songs, poems and posters singing his praises. He has lately accompanied his father on factory tours, and was said to have joined him on a recent trip to China. The campaign may convince some of the people, experts say, but it is likely to have little impact on the elite, who will be testing his willingness to exercise power. Some in the West, including Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, have ascribed the sinking of a South Korean warship by a North Korean torpedo attack in March to the succession struggle and Kim Jong-un’s efforts to establish credibility with the military brass.
Others, however, contend that the elite are quite comfortable with the idea of an inexperienced leader. “I think he is chosen exactly because he is young,” Andrei Lankov, a North Korean expert at Kookmin University in Seoul, said in an interview this month. “He will be a dictator, but merely a rubber-stamping dictator. This is what the people in the positions of power want.”
The party meeting was due to begin later Tuesday. Although the secretive government has said a new supreme leadership body will be elected, very little has been disclosed about the agenda. The current gathering was originally announced by KCNA as scheduled for “early September,” and the slight delay touched off speculation about cutthroat internal wrangling over the presumed dynastic succession, Kim Jong-il’s health, and flooded roads and washed-out bridges that made travel difficult.
John Delury, a professor of international relations at Yonsei University in Seoul, was in Pyongyang last week for meetings with North Korean officials and said speculation was clearly starting to build around the meeting. “This is a party meeting, and these are very rare in North Korean history,” he said in an interview on Monday. Some analysts said they believed that Kim Jong-un was almost certain to be named his father’s successor and would perhaps be given one of eight Politburo seats. Others were more cautious, suggesting his ascendancy could still be undone by political infighting.
Kim Jong-il’s health has been the subject of much speculation. Some who have seen him in person say he appears wan and diminished, while others say he appears active and alert, despite a slight limp. Daniel C. Sneider, associate director for research of the Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center at Stanford, said, “At the very least, the last year tells us that Kim Jong-il knows he doesn’t have the kind of time to prepare his son for succession that he enjoyed.”
At the last Workers’ Party meeting in 1980, Kim Jong-il, then 38, was named to several party posts and confirmed as the sole successor to his father. All told, he had spent more than two decades learning the ropes when he finally took control upon the death of his father, Kim Il-sung, in 1994.