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Kim Jong-un: Why there’s growing certainty he'll be next North Korea leader

Kim Jong-un, youngest son to North Korea's 'dear leader' has been appointed to general, along with his aunt. The newly acquired rank is a very strong sign there will be no change in the ‘military first’ policy within the closed nation.

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A South Korean man at the Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea, watches a TV news program showing North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, on Tuesday. Kim Jong-il appointed his youngest son, Kim Jong-un (top right in the TV screen), as an army general.

Ahn Young-joon/AP

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The third son of North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-il was named a four-star general Tuesday, in a bold reaffirmation of the North’s military-first policy and the dynastic rule of the Kim family.

Kim Jong-un, educated in Switzerland, with no record of military experience, was given the rank of general by order of his father hours before delegates gathered for the first conference in 44 years of North Korea’s Workers’ Party, according to Pyongyang’s Korean Central News Agency. The highlight of the conference, reported the agency: Kim Jong-il’s reappointment as party general secretary.

Related: 5 key people to watch in North Korea

Since Kim Jong-il’s power lies in his post as chairman of the National Defense Commission, the rise of his son to the highest military rank suggests to analysts here he will not only inherit that post but continue the same confrontational posture against North Korea’s long-time enemies.

“This is the age of military first-policy,” says Ha Tae-keung, president of Open Radio for North Korea, which monitors events inside the North through a wide range of cell phone contacts. “That’s why Kim Jong-un got a military position rather than a party position.” Analysts note, however, that he may get a party position before the conference is over – though there's still no word on whether it's already ended or is still going on.

Kim Jong-un

Mr. Ha believes that well before the conference Kim Jong-un had already assumed a leading role in ruling the country as he consolidates his power behind the armed forces. The instinct for regime and family survival, he says, means he “will never allow any possibility that his regime will be unstable” and “will never allow reform and opening” for fear of “instability.”

The closest Kim Jong-un has come previously to having any kind of rank is as “youth captain,” the informal term given him in lectures to military and party people. Such references have avoided the use not only of his name but of his age, purported to be in his late 20s, some 10 years below that of his father when he was anointed at the age of 38 as successor to his father, the long-ruling Kim Il-sung, at a party congress 30 years ago.

Appointment of Kim Jong-un to the highest military rank came as a surprise to many observers, who had expected him simply to become a member of the party central committee at the conference and possibly a member of the politburo. That kind of appointment would have been enough to confirm speculation that Kim Jong-il, who is reported to be in poor health, had chosen him as his successor, perpetuating a dynasty founded by Kim Il-sung, who rose to power in the North after serving as a Soviet army officer in World War II.

Kim Jong-un’s appointment is “beyond my expectations,” says KimTae-woo, senior analyst at the Korean Institute for Defense Analyses. “I expected them to assure Kim’s place humbly” – with a lesser but still meaningful post. In any case, he adds, Kim Jong-un’s newly acquired rank is “a very strong sign there will be no change in the ‘military first’ policy.”

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Enter the sister: caretaker

More surprisingly, Kim Jong-il also named his sister, Kim Kyong-hui, as a general in an apparent attempt at insuring the survival of the dynasty after he dies. Ms. Kim already holds a senior post in the party and is married to Jang Song-thaek, who holds considerable power as vice chairman of the National Defense Commission and is seen by some as ruling as a regent if Kim Jong-un takes the top job after his father.

“Naming Kim Kyong-hui as a general is sort of making her a caretaker,” says Ha Tae-keung. She needs to hold that rank, he says, before Kim Jong-un succeeds his father on the National Defense Commission and as leader of the party. The inference is, if Jong-un were to die unexpectedly, his aunt would be in line to rule the country.

As for why her husband, Jang Song-thaek was not named a general though he is widely known to be Kim Jong-il's right-hand man says Ha, “Only descendants of Kim il-sung can be his successor and Jang is not a descendant.”

What's reported and what's not

The mention of Kim Jong-un in the report, carried by Pyongyang’s Korean Central News Agency, of his appointment as a general marked the first time that his name has appeared in the North Korean media but there was still no word on whether he had appeared before the party conference. Nor did his picture, so far not seen in North Korea, accompany the initial reports.

The conference, moreover, fueled fresh concerns about the health of Kim Jong-il, who was expected to appear on the opening day. The news of his acclamation as general secretary of the party did not say that he had been present.

Instead, the Korean Central News Agency relied on flowery rhetoric, saying calling his reelection “an expression of absolute support and trust of all the party members, the service persons and the people in Kim Jong-il.”

In contrast to the bare-bones announcement of the appointment of Kim Jong-un as a general, the KCNA report emphasized the continuity implicit in KimJong-il’s rule. Having him in the highest position” in the party, without change,” said the report, “is the greatest honor and happiness of the millions of members of the party, soldiers and officials of the people’s army and the people, and is the fatherland and nation’s happiest event.”

Despite the hoopla surrounding the conference, including banners and posters around Pyongyang, there was no sure sign as to whether the conference would go on with other appointments – or whether Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un would finally make an appearance.

Still, the mention of his name may be all that really counts. “Even though his face did not appear, his name appeared,” says Ha Tae-keung. “So it can be said he appeared.”


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