North Korean leader promotes son, sister in advance of party conference

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
Tuesday, September 28, 2010; 11:35 PM

SEOUL - North Korean leader Kim Jong Il promoted his son and his sister to top military positions in the hours before the country's largest political conference in 30 years, demonstrating anew his reliance on family bloodlines to protect his reclusive regime.

The elevation of Kim's son Kim Jong Eun to the rank of general verified his status as the Stalinist dictator's heir apparent.

But according to experts, it was the tapping of sister Kim Kyong Hui to a similar position that offered a glimpse into Kim Jong Il's strategy for protecting power as his health declines and his untested son emerges. To put it simply: He plans to rely on his family.

Politics is the Kim family business. Staying in business is the Kim family's latest challenge. Though the Kims have always used North Korea as an expansive family headquarters - "The entire bureaucracy is just a personal staff for Kim Jong Il," Seoul-based analyst Park Hyeong-jung said - experts on Tuesday noted that Kim Kyong Hui's new job reinforces the bloodline-over-party priority. She has no military experience, but she was made a four-star general.

"When things really get tough - when the leader gets ill - it's the family that starts to circle the wagons," said Ken Gause, an Alexandria-based analyst specializing in North Korean leadership.

"We've seen this in Iraq, in the last years of the Saddam regime. And that's the case here. It seems to me not an accident that the day before they make party appointments, they make the bloodline appointments," Gause said. "That is a clear signal to what's happening here: The Kim family is still in control."

Analysts in both Seoul and Washington offered mixed theories on the implications of Kim Kyong Hui's promotion, but several said they suspect that she will play a prominent caretaker role as her nephew learns about the top job and tries to convince Pyongyang's ruling party and military members that he is fit for it.

Even before Kim Kyong Hui received her new title, the father-to-son power transfer was a family job. Kim Kyong Hui's husband, National Defense Commission Vice Chairman Jang Song Taek, is widely viewed as a regent for Kim Jong Eun. He could also serve as an interim ruler if the Dear Leader dies or falls seriously ill before Kim Jong Eun has adapted to his designated role.

Kim Kyong Hui and Jang Song Taek have been married for 38 years, falling in love despite the objections of her father, the late Kim Il Sung. Some experts believe that Kim Kyong Hui was promoted to help legitimize her husband; she can act as a prominent link to the Kim blood, if ever Jang needs public support.

Others believe that Kim Kyong Hui was promoted, in fact, as a counterweight to her husband, checking him from growing too ambitious.

"By giving Kim Kyong Hui power, Kim Jong Eun's succession can be solidified," said Cheong Seong Chang, senior analyst at Seoul's Sejong Institute. "Even though she became a general, that is just a title and it does not mean she'll start controlling and ordering troops. But it would be a base for her to be involved in case of Kim Jong Il's death. She can use her title to persuade the elite power in the military to select Kim Jong Eun as the next leader."

Examining the inner workings of the world's most secretive state requires an element of guesswork, with information based on foreign intelligence, North Korean propaganda and rare accounts from high-level defectors. Accurate details about the workings of Kim's inner sanctum - and the lives of those within it - often do not trickle out until years later.

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