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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.

Most who analyze North Korea, though, believe that Kim Jong Il shares a fiercely close relationship with his sister, younger by four years. Raised primarily by distant family members and nannies, they spent their childhoods together.

In the past two years, Kim Kyong Hui, now 64, has emerged as Kim Jong Il's top companion on guidance tours. According to a recent essay by Yuriko Koike, Japan's former defense minister, Kim Jong Il once told the Central Committee of the Workers' Party that "Kim Kyong Hui is myself, the words of Kim Kyong Hui are my words, and instructions issued by Kim Kyong Hui are my instructions."

Kim Jong Il has also asked Kim Kyong Hui to do many things that sisters rarely do for brothers. She currently heads North Korea's light industry. She has previously been involved with aspects of North Korea's surveillance machine.

According to Gause, Kim Kyong Hui helped to establish a network of contacts in Europe - particularly Switzerland - that the family used to stash its private millions.

For several years during the mid-2000s, Kim Kyong Hui disappeared from public life. North Korea analysts, in a popular but unproven theory, often attribute her absence to a struggle with alcoholism.

Since its founding in 1948, North Korea has occasionally created personality cults for its most important women - most notably for Kim Jong Suk, wife of Kim Il Sung, who was revered as the Sacred Mother of the Revolution, and often referred to as a general. Though North Korean political power remains male-dominated - as illustrated by the recent photos of dark-suited delegates arriving in Pyongyang for Tuesday's meeting - its regime cultivates what author B.R. Myers calls a "coddling mother" image, which can apply to both women and men.

In propaganda artwork, founder Kim Il Sung is bathed in pinkish hues, and children nuzzle his bosom. Propaganda has described Kim Jong Il as "more of a mother than all the mothers in the world."

Within the past decade, North Korean women have grown in status. In 2003, North Korea started drafting all-women military units.The percentage of women in the military has since increased, though accurate numbers are hard to find. Meanwhile, the private market economy is sustained largely by women, who operate food stalls while men maintain government-approved employment.

"That's led, generally, to a rise in status of women," Myers said in an interview. "They can be responsible for their own earnings and their own fate."

Though delegates met Tuesday as part of the rare party conference, North Korea revealed no further significant developments. A promised "major announcement" turned out to be the renomination of Kim Jong Il as head of the ruling party.

No matter the party leadership reshuffling that ensues, experts view the military promotions as a telling sign of Pyongyang's succession plans. The announcement of the promotions, carried by the state-run news agency, was the first time Kim Jong Eun's name ever appeared in a public North Korean report.

In contrast to his inexperienced son, Kim Jong Il worked for roughly a decade behind the scenes before emerging in the public as his own father's heir apparent.

Now, two years removed from a stroke and still dealing with myriad health problems, Kim Jong Il is rushing to reorganize his country so his family can retain power after his death.

"What we can say is, Kim Jong Il is putting his ducks in a row," said Jennifer Lind, a North Korea expert at Dartmouth College. "From the standpoint of this week's events, the regime has taken a step to make itself more stable. It's pretty clear that Kim Jong Il is gathering the people around him who are closest to him."

Special correspondent Yoonjung Seo contributed to this report.

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