|Kim Il Sung / Kim Jong-il / Kim Jong-un|
The fog that has surrounded the succession plan of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il lifted somewhat yesterday with the official naming of his youngest son as a four-star military general.
Kim Jong-un, who is in his late 20s, was given the position of military general along with five other officials, including his aunt, Kim Jong-il’s younger sister Kim Kyong-hui. With the move, a third-generation dynastic succession seems to be in place.
Kim Jong-il has long struggled to find a suitable heir to his throne, and the communist leader felt increasing pressure after suffering a stroke in the summer of 2008.
The unexpected announcement of the six new generals was made by North Korea’s state-run news agency in the early hours yesterday, several hours before the start of the Workers’ Party meeting, which kicked off its first day with the re-induction of Kim Jong-il as the party’s general secretary.
Kim Jong-un is expected to be promoted to several high positions within the party during the meeting.
Kim Jong-il, 68, started his ascension to power with the last Workers’ Party meeting in 1966. During the sixth party congress in 1980, Kim was given senior posts at the Central Committee, the Politburo and the Central Military Committee.
Jong-un’s path to power differs from that of his father in that he is getting a military position at an early age.
Yesterday’s announcement of the six new generals was also unique in that four are civilians with no prior military experience. The other two, aside from Kim Jong-un and Kim Kyong-hui, are Choe Ryong-hae, a former provincial party secretary from North Hwanghae Province, and Kim Kyong-ok, the first vice director of the party’s Organization and Guidance Department.
This unprecedented appointment of civilians to top military posts, experts say, might reflect an urgency to redistribute power in state affairs within North Korea. But they might also be basically political in nature. Now that he has been appointed a general, Kim Jong-un has a better chance of receiving a significant title within the party’s Central Military Committee.
It also reinforces North Korea’s songun ideology, experts say, which gives top priority to the nation’s military, the Korean People’s Army. North Korea officially reconfirmed the songun ideology in April by adding a separate article on it in an amendment to its constitution.
“The appointment of Kim Jong-un as a general can be seen as an attempt [by Kim Jong-il] to wipe out any doubts of Jong-un’s lack of leadership and experience,” said Cheong Seong-chang, an expert on North Korea at the Sejong Institute.
“Giving Jong-un a general’s position was an act to place him as a ‘songun’ leader. There has been news from North Korea that Kim Jong-un has continued the line of revolutionary songun feats starting from last year. Now he has the title that can place him in a bigger core position sometime in the future,” said Cheong.
The title “general” is inevitably needed to enter the leadership in North Korea, said a South Korean government official yesterday, explaining Kim Jong-il’s decision.
Also, the promotion of Jong-un’s aunt as general demonstrates Kim Jong-il’s wish to protect his son within the military and the party. The aunt and her husband, Jang Song-thaek, are known to be supportive of Jong-un as heir to the throne, and Kim seems to be relying more on family as his health wanes.
Jang is the Workers’ Party’s director of administration with responsibility for the police, judiciary and other areas of internal security - the second most powerful post in the ruling party.
South Korean intelligence sources expect Jang to be named the secretary of organization during the meeting, a position held by Kim Jong-il since 1973. They also think he will be elected a member of the party’s decision-making body, or the Politburo.
Cho Sung-yeal at the Institute for National Security Strategy based in Seoul says Kim Jong-il has created a “mass leadership” with the appointment of his sister and Choe Ryong-hae as generals, which will create a turning point within the regime above and apart from the succession issue.
“Those who were civilians before the appointment,” said Kim Young-soo, a professor at Sogang University in Seoul, “have now received multiple forms of power through positions both in the party and the military.” Kim said. Jang did not receive a general’s post because he already holds the powerful title of vice chairman of the National Defense Commission.
The South Korean government was tight-lipped yesterday on the announcement, with a Blue House official saying that the situation, which could be seen as a reaffirmation of North Korea’s “military first” policy, needs more observation.
An official at the Ministry of Unification said, “Final judgements on succession can only be made once the Workers’ Party meeting is finished.” The official said the government is watching the situation “very closely.”
The end date for the meeting has not yet been announced, though previous conventions have lasted for several days. The last one took over a week.
Meanwhile, the ruling and opposition parties in South Korea expressed similar opinions that the decision to bequeath power to Jong-un was an “unfortunate” one and expressed worry over the stability of a possible Kim Jong-un-led regime.
Kurt Campbell, the United States assistant secretary of state for East Asia, said Washington was “carefully” observing changes in North Korea.
“We will be engaged with all of our partners in the Asia-Pacific region as we try to understand the meaning of what is going on there,” Campbell said in New York while attending meetings on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly.
“But frankly, it is still too early to tell in terms of next steps,” he said, “or in fact what’s going on inside the country’s leadership.”
Yesterday’s announcement was the first official mention of Jong-un’s name in North Korean media, and according to some South Korean experts, Jong-un had just been “singled out, but [had] not officially made his debut.”
According to informed sources within North Korea, Kim Jong-un was given several responsibilities in the recent past, and rumors have said he was responsible for the attack on the South Korean warship Cheonan in March, though it has not been confirmed.
By Christine Kim [firstname.lastname@example.org]