Reporting from Seoul and Washington — Kim Jong Il's youngest son was named to senior positions within the ruling Workers' Party on Tuesday, another sign from the reclusive state that the mysterious twentysomething will soon succeed his father to become the next leader of North Korea.
North Korea's state-controlled news agency reported that Kim Jong Eun was named to the party's Central Committee, and he also was appointed vice chairman of the military committee. The North Koreans appeared to be following a template from 1980, the last time the secretive regime held a major party congress and elected Kim Jong Il to virtually the same positions to groom him as successor to his father, North Korea's founder Kim Il Sung.
But Kim Jong Eun's ascent through the ranks is happening much more quickly, the haste necessitated by the poor health of his 68-year-old father, who suffers from diabetes and a kidney ailment. Rumors of a power handoff have circulated since the elder Kim apparently suffered a debilitating stroke in 2008.
On Monday, the youngest Kim, who is believed to be 27 and is thought to have attended school in Switzerland, was named a four-star general at the nation's biggest political convention in 30 years, according to the official Korean Central News Agency.
Until then, his name had never appeared in the North Korean media, although party propaganda has been trumpeting the need for a 21st century leader "who is young and vibrant and full of spirit." It was not clear whether the younger Kim made a public appearance Tuesday.
The latest political appointment should give Kim Jong Eun a base both within the military and the ruling party. Kim Jong Il's 64-year-old sister, Kim Kyong Hui, a fiery and energetic woman who is believed to be the top leader's closest confidant, was also named a general and committee member.
Analysts say she will be expected to act as a regent to the younger Kim, along with her husband, Jang Song Taek, the most powerful man in the country after Kim Jong Il.
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell told reporters in Washington that the Obama administration is closely monitoring unfolding events in Pyongyang but would be surprised at little.
"We know remarkably little about Kim Jong Il's youngest son," he said. "Recently, we've done a careful look at what we think we've known and compared that with predictions associated with North Korean developments, and it is interesting and cautionary to see how wrong we've been in the past."
Still, many North Korea watchers are warning of a potential power struggle when Kim Jong Il dies. "It's the biggest soap opera since 'Dallas,' " said Kongdan Oh at the Institute for Defense Analyses in Alexandria, Va. "When Kim Jong Il is really physically dead, we don't know what will happen. It is unlikely this young prince will have the talent and charisma of Kim Jong Il or Kim Il Sung."
Others see a patient chess game being played by Kim Jong Il, who for decades has ruled the impoverished nation of 24 million residents with absolute authority.
"Promoting Kim Jong Eun to a four-star general and a vice chairman of the party's Central Military Commission greatly increases his status as a formal heir," said Yang Moo-jin of the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul. "Taking into account his age and experience, it was likely difficult to give the young Kim a post such as a key member in its political bureau, so he received a military position right below Kim Jong Il, where he can strengthen his control over the military."
Glionna reported from Seoul and Demick from Washington. Ethan Kim in The Times' Seoul Bureau also contributed to this report.