SEOUL, South Korea
— North Korean leader Kim Jong Il's youngest son has been named a
four-star general, a promotion that paved the way for his advance in
the ranks, but stopped short of installing him as next in line to run
the impoverished communist country.
On Monday, the eve of a rare congress of the ruling Workers' Party in Pyongyang, the official Korea Central News Agency announced the appointment of Kim Jong Eun, a mysterious figure who is believed to be 27 years old and educated in Switzerland.
The announcement was the first time the North Korean
regime has publicly uttered the name of the man believed to be heir
apparent to the dynasty begun by his grandfather Kim Il Sung after
World War II. His photograph, resume and even the spelling of his name
have been deemed state secrets.
The decision did not end speculation about what the future will hold. Kim Jong Il, 68, is believed to be ill.
"This is just the first step in the succession
process. As long as Kim Jong Il is alive, nobody knows how the other
parties are going to react," said Gordon Flake, executive director of the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Foundation, a Washington think tank.
Besides Kim Jong Eun, five others were named generals. Among them was Kim Kyong Hui, Kim Jong Il's 64-year-old sister, who long has been considered the leader's closest family confidante. Her husband, Jang Song Taek,
is a powerful figure in his own right with extensive family ties in the
military. Jang was promoted in June to be vice chairman of the National
Defense Commission, which is headed by Kim Jong Il.
The appointment of Kim Jong Eun suggests that Kim Jong Il is trying to prevent internal squabbling over the succession.
"North Korea is a Confucian country and people were concerned Kim Jong Eun was too young. They need to have the older face of Kim Kyong Hui next to his," said Brent Choi, a longtime North Korea analyst who now reports for Voice of America.
Another of the newly promoted generals is Choe Ryong Hae, a top party official whose father was said to have fought together with Kim Il Sung as an anti-Japanese guerrilla.
Kim Jong Eun is believed to be the youngest son of Kim Jong Il and his late consort, Ko Young Hee, a dancer who died of cancer in 2004. The young man and an older brother, Kim Jong Chol, attended Swiss schools in the late 1990s while posing as children of North Korean diplomats.
After three years in a German-speaking public school near Bern, Kim Jong Eun returned to North Korea
in 2000. He is believed to have obtained two degrees, one in physics at
Kim Il Sung University, and another at the Kim Il Sung Military
Academy. According to defector groups in Seoul, he has been in the military for about three years and may have previously held the rank of three-star general.
Although his name has not appeared in the news
media, North Koreans have been lectured in mandatory ideological
sessions for at least one year about the brilliant "young general."
"For the 21st century, we need a leader who is young
and vibrant and full of spirit. ... The party happens to have a young
leader in mind who possesses those kinds of qualities," read one
lecture, the contents of which was obtained by Korean Intellectuals
Solidarity, a Seoul-based defector group.
A 28-year-old North Korean woman living in China said people had been told that Kim Jong Eun had been living under cover for years as he was being groomed for the leadership.
"They say he was three years in the military in the
toughest region of the country. He lived like everybody else; they
didn't have much food. He saw the system from the inside and will help
fix it," said the woman, who gave her name as Su-jong, interviewed in
the border city of Yanji this year.
Jeong Hee Ok, a woman in her 50s from Hamhung, North Korea, said she had first heard about Kim Jong Eun late last year in a party lecture.
"They told us all about the successor and we were
very happy," Jeong said. "People believe he will be smarter and will
bring the country new perspectives."
In Seoul on Tuesday, the announcement was carried as breaking news by television and print media. Still the ambiguousness of Kim Jong Eun's new appointment left many here wondering about future tensions on the Korea peninsula.
"It looks like they are taking the final steps to mold Kim Jong Eun as the successor to Kim Jong Il," said Kim Hyung Hee, a retiree living in south Seoul. "But although his close associates support him, I don't know if the military would. There could be bumps down the road."
Many North Korean defectors believe that Kim Jong Il had to slow down plans to name Kim Jong Eun his successor because of criticism inside and out.
Food shortages, a botched currency overhaul, and
diplomatic isolation resulting from the country's nuclear weapons
program and the sinking of a South Korean military ship blamed on Pyongyang have chipped away at the absolute obedience once commanded by the regime.
"Kim Jong Il is moving hesitantly," said Kim Tae-jin, a North Korean defector activist living in Seoul. "He has to put Kim Jong Eun
in a position where he can claim some achievement of his own in order
to be legitimized. They are hoping to buy themselves time."
Kim Jong Il was publicly named successor to his
father in 1980, at age 38, and took over the leadership upon Kim Il
Sung's death in 1994.
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