The youngest son of North Korea’s supreme leader has received powerful posts in the ruling party. Regional experts say while that may solidify his path to succeed his father, for now there is no doubt that Kim Jong Il remains in charge.
Hours after Kim Jong Un was promoted to four-star general in North Korea, state media early Wednesday announced he also was appointed to the Workers’ Party Central Committee and – more significantly – named vice chairman of the powerful Central Military Commission.
Regional political analysts say those positions clearly set him on the road to succeeding his father, Kim Jong Il.
Even so, the morning newscast from Pyongyang’s official broadcaster seemed to emphasize that the elder Kim retains his grip on power, devoting its first seven minutes to praising him.
The announcer says serving Kim Jong Il, with his unchanging highest rank in the Korea Worker’s Party, leads to victory and is the greatest glory and happiness for the people, the soldiers, and the nation.
Kim Jong Il assumed power when his father, Kim Il Sung, the founder of North Korea, died in 1994. But he had two decades to develop his political skills and a public reputation before that.
His son, who is about 27, may not have as long, since Kim Jong Il, at 68, reportedly is ailing. Some North Korea experts say that could lead to problems over the next few years, as the son may try to build strength by pushing out opponents and instigating provocative military acts.
Ha Tae-keung is president of Open Radio for North Korea, which says it relies on sources in the North. Ha predicts a “sweeping purge” in the Workers’ Party that could prompt a backlash from those who served loyally under Kim Jong-il, but oppose the son.
Ha also says it is likely that North-South relations will deteriorate. He expects the younger Kim to intensify tension with Seoul to bolster his weak power base.
Little is known about Kim Jong Un, even inside North Korea. The only state media references to him, so far, are about his appointments without noting who he is.
The elder Kim’s sister and her husband also received prominent party posts Tuesday. Regional analysts interpret those promotions as attempting to ensure a smooth succession to a third generation of the Kim family.
The reaction in Seoul has been skeptical.
The Joong Ang Ilbo newspaper predicts it will be difficult for the son to be recognized as a legitimate leader by his own people and other countries. The Korea Herald says hereditary succession is “an attempt to backslide into the dark ages.”
In Washington, Defense Department spokesman Colonel David Lapan says U.S. objectives remain the same regardless of who is in charge in Pyongyang.
“Whatever regime is in power in North Korea takes steps to stop pursuing nuclear weapons and proliferation and looks for peace and stability on the peninsula,” said Lapan. “So it matters less who is in positions of leadership there and more what they do to reach those objectives.”
The United States maintains 28,000 troops in South Korea.
Also Wednesday, South Korea’s Ministry of Defense said the two Koreas will hold working-level military talks on Thursday, the first in two yeas.
Tensions have been high on the peninsula since the sinking of a South Korean warship six months ago. Seoul, Washington and others blame a North Korean torpedo for the incident in which 46 South Korean sailors died.
Pyongyang denies any involvement.