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.
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.