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North Korea's Kim Jong-il cements 'military first' stand with key appointments

North Korea's Kim Jong-il gave son Kim Jong-un a military as well as a political role. The emphasis on military appointments in the politburo fortifies the 'military-first policy.'

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A man walks by a South Korean newspaper bearing photos of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il (c.) and his late father Kim Il-sung (l.) and his youngest son Kim Jong-un, displayed at a news stand in Seoul, South Korea, Wednesday.

Ahn Young-joon/AP

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North Korea’s heir presumptive, Kim Jong-un, has received at least one important political position to go along with the military rank of general bequeathed to him by his father, Kim Jong-il.

Kim Jong-un was named vice chairman of the party’s military commission along with Ri Yong-ho, who still outranks him as chief of the North Korean Army’s general staff, at the party’s “historic” conference on Tuesday, Pyongyang’s Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported Wednesday.

The appointments solidify Kim Jong-un’s rise as a military figure who’s in line to inherit his father’s power. Kim Jong-il is chairman of the party’s military commission – and rules as chairman of the real center of power, the National Defense Commission, an entirely separate entity in charge of the North’s military establishment of 1.1 million troops.

Related: 5 key people to watch in North Korea

The emphasis on military appointments fortified the "military-first policy" that has dominated the regime for the past few years, but analysts also say the conference has renewed traditional emphasis on the importance of the party.

“For the past 10 years the role of the party has increased,” says Baek Seung-joo, a senior researcher at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses. “Now the party’s role is increasing. The party will play an active role in governing North Korea.”

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KCNA stressed the military significance of the conference, the first of its kind in 44 years, at which, it said, delegates were told to fulfill the policy of “songun” or military first. The conference, said KCNA, “demonstrated the revolutionary faith and will of all the party members, service persons and people.”

Kim Jong-un was not named, however, as a member of the party politburo, which his father leads as general secretary. Rather, he had to settle for membership on the central committee of the party – a decision by his father that is seen as a reflection on his youth and a bow to his need for experience before rising to full power.

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Many details surrounding Kim Jong-un are unclear. Even his age, reported here to be 27 years old, is reported varyingly in the media. He is said to have attended the Kim Il-sung National War College, named for his grandfather, who ruled for nearly half a century before dying in 1994 and passing on power to Jong-un’s father. Jong-un reportedly did not actually commute to classes but was tutored at one of his father’s residences.

The new politburo lineup includes a number of familiar figures, including Kim Yong-nam, president of the Supreme People’s Assembly and titular head of state, and Choe Yong-rim, the premier. Among military names on the politburo are Ri Yong-ho, newly promoted to vice marshal, and Jo Myong-rok, an aging vice marshal who is first vice chairman of the National Defense Commission. Mr. Jo’s claim to international fame is that he went to Washington in October 2000 and, in full military regalia, met President Bill Clinton in the White House. He also was honored at a State Department dinner hosted by Madeleine Albright, then secretary of State, and saw William Cohen, secretary of Defense, at a time of reconciliation between the US and North Korea.

The politburo also includes Kim Jong-il’s younger sister, Kim Kyuong-hui, whom he named as a general along with his son. Her husband, Jang Song-thaek, was named an alternate member.

Another significant appointment to the politburo was that of Kang Sok-ju, a major figure in negotiations over the years on North Korea’s nuclear program, who was recently promoted from vice foreign minister to vice premier. His appointment is seen as indicating North Korea’s new emphasis, at the urging of China, to return to six-party talks on giving up its nuclear weapons in return for a massive infusion of energy aid.

Related: 5 key people to watch in North Korea


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