North Korean leader promotes son to 4-star general, now in position to succeed him

North Korean leader Kim Jong Il promoted his youngest son to the rank of general in the Korean People's Army, the state news agency reported early Tuesday, the clearest signal yet that the 20-something is on track to succeed his father.
By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, September 27, 2010; 8:48 PM

SEOUL - North Korean leader Kim Jong Il has promoted his youngest son, Kim Jong Eun, to four-star general, the country's state-run media reported early Tuesday, affirming the Kim family's plans for a second hereditary power transfer.

The brief report from the Korean Central News Agency signals the public emergence of the "Young General," whose name had never previously appeared in North Korean public documents or announcements. Coming hours before the state holds its biggest political conference in three decades, Kim Jong Eun's ascendancy probably marks the start of widespread leadership change within the Stalinist dictatorship, a means for the future leader to build his undeveloped support base and prevent regime collapse.

Kim Jong Il also named his sister, Kim Kyong Hui, as general. The promotions, taken together, reinforce the extent to which the ailing 68-year-old leader will depend on his immediate family for stability during the succession. Kim Kyong Hui has long been a trusted behind-the-scenes adviser to her brother. She is the wife of Jang Song Taek, who has received several promotions in recent years and now serves as vice chairman of the National Defense Commission. Jang is widely viewed as a regent for the father-to-son power hand-off - as well as an interim leader if Kim Jong Il were to die suddenly.

Experts and government officials in Washington and Seoul had largely expected that the Workers' Party conference, beginning Tuesday in Pyongyang, would coincide with a formal sign about succession. Frail and gaunt, rumored to be dealing with everything from depression to early dementia, Kim Jong Il has seemingly accelerated the succession plans since his stroke in August 2008. Most experts believe Kim Jong Eun is either 26 or 27.

"[This promotion] makes him legitimate at least in rank to succeed his father," said Victor Cha, an expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former U.S. representative in nuclear negotiations with Pyongyang. "The transition itself is academic. The real question will be whether they can hold it all together."

Kim has kept his family in power with a system that suppresses dissent and prohibits most citizens from getting information about the outside world. North Korea's unchecked nuclear weapons program creates constant headaches for the Obama administration and the six-party negotiating process aimed at ending North Korea's nuclear ambitions.

Kim Jong Il took power from his father gradually, over decades. Kim Jong Eun will probably get just a few years for the same process. While most of North Korean's 24 million people deal with food shortages, experts believe that the greatest threat to Kim Jong Eun's rise will come from within the Workers' Party or the military, where high-ranking officials could second-guess the wisdom of an untested twenty-something.

According to several sources, North Korea, which often fabricates the biographies of its leaders, has quietly tried since last year to build a personality cult around Kim Jong Eun - aiming it particularly at what Kim Jong Il calls the "rising generation."

Children in North Korea now sing a song, "Footsteps," with lyrics that describe a future of prosperity. Seoul's government intercepted a 17-page document, an apparent draft of lecture materials for military members, extolling the accomplishments of the general comrade Kim Jong Eun. The lecture notes, provided to The Washington Post, mention Kim Jong Eun as a "legendary person" who received the same "holy blood" as the Dear Leader. Jong Eun is credited for drafting strategic maps. He's lauded for his excellent shooting skills. He's said to be knowledgeable about modern military technology. "He is a genius with exceptional talent," the document reads. "Anybody who meets him . . . wants to worship him."

Little, real or fake, is known about Kim Jong Eun.He was born on Jan. 8 - probably in 1983 or 1984. His mother is Ko Yong Hui, who emigrated from Japan, later working as a dancer at the Pyongyang Mansudae Art Troupe. As a teen, Jong Eun attended school in Switzerland under a false name. From 2002 until April 2007, he received ideological education at Kimilsung Military University, according to Cheong Seong Chang, a researcher at Seoul's Sejong Institute, his only known link to the military until now.

Some analysts believe that Jong Eun has already held a secret government position: In March 2009, a man named "Kim Jong" was elected as a representative in North Korea's 216th electoral district.

Underscoring North Korea's gift for keeping secrets, the current Kim Jong Eun personality sketch depends almost entirely on details from a former Kim family sushi chef, Kenji Fujimoto, who later published a book. He describes the youngest Kim as an NBA lover with "boss-like qualities." He'd lash out when he didn't get respect from his siblings.

It remains unknown when Kim Jong Eun will emerge from his father's shadow, taking responsibility for any aspect of the nation's decision-making. It also remains to be seen whether he claims new titles within the Workers' Party and military. Further decisions about North Korea's leadership will come at the party conference, the state media has said.

According to South Korea's Ministry of Unification, which maintains a flowchart of North Korean leadership, Kim Jong Il is currently the lone chairman of the Central Military Commission and the lone standing member of the Political Bureau. He is also chairman of the National Defense Commission, seen as the most powerful decision-making body - a reflection of Kim's military-first policy.

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