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North Korea leader Kim Jong Il's son promoted to four-star general

The appointment of the mysterious Kim Jong Eun stops short of designating him as successor to his father.

September 28, 2010|By Barbara Demick and John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Washington and Seoul — 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 to have been educated in Switzerland.

Late Tuesday, North Korean state TV announced that Kim Jong Il had been reappointed as general secretary of the Workers' Party at the delayed political gathering to elect the party's top leadership. But there was no formal announcement that the youngest son of the ruler knows here as "Dear Leader" was named successor to power.

Kim Jong Eun's appointment 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 the future, however. 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.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Kurt M. Campbell told reporters in Washington that the Obama administration was "watching developments carefully" to interpret the significance of the announcement.

Besides Kim Jong Eun, five others were named generals. Among them was Kim Kyong Hui, Kim Jong Il's 64-year-old sister, who has long been considered the leader's closest family confidant. 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.

In a syndicated column this month, Yuriko Koike, a former Japanese defense minister and national security advisor, suggested that Kim Jong Il might name his sister to serve as a caretaker until his son was able to fully assume power.

" 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.

Kim Kyong Hui recently has been seen accompanying her brother at public events. "Kim Jong Il is very proud of her," said Jang Sung-min, a former South Korean lawmaker who wrote a book on the North Korean leader. "And she is a very attractive person to the North Koreans as well. She is like a strong man with a strong character."

Another of the newly promoted generals is Choe Ryong Hae, a top party official whose father was said to have fought 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."

In Seoul on Tuesday, the announcement was carried as breaking news by television and print media. A Seoul newspaper reported the previous day that the younger Kim was chosen as a military delegate to the Workers' Party conference. The story in the Chosun Ilbo, quoting a source in North Korea that it did not identify, said the party central committee issued internal propaganda documents proclaiming Kim Jong Eun to be Kim Jong Il's sole successor.

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."

"As long as Kim Jong Il is alive, the two will have some sort of co-governing scheme, though power will rapidly shift to the younger Kim," said Koh Yu Hwan, an expert on the North Korean leadership at Dongguk University near Seoul.

barbara.demick@latimes.com

john.glionna@latimes.com

Demick reported from Washington and Glionna from Seoul. Ethan S. Kim in The Times' Seoul Bureau contributed to this report.

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