The youngest son of Kim Jong-il, North Korea’s reclusive leader, has been promoted to military general, that country’s official Korea Central News Agency reported early Tuesday, the clearest sign yet that he is in line to succeed his father as the country’s leader.
A brief dispatch by KCNA said the son, Kim Jong-un, and five others had been made generals in the Korea People’s Army. It was the first time that KCNA or any North Korean news outlet had mentioned the son by name. The new generals’ roster also included Kim Kyong-hui, Mr. Kim’s sister. She is the wife of Jang Seong-taek, often regarded by outside analysts as the No. 2 man in the North and a potential caretaker for the young son, still in his late 20s, should Mr. Kim become suddenly incapacitated.
The news came hours after delegates to a rare gathering of the ruling Workers’ Party arrived in the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, on Monday as the party began final preparations for a meeting that could provide further signals about Kim Jong-un’s debut. Photographs from Pyongyang showed banners and posters announcing the conclave, and there has been heavy speculation in the South Korean news media about the possible anointing of the younger Kim.
The party meeting was due to be held later Tuesday, and although the secretive regime has said a new supreme leadership body will be elected, very little has been disclosed about the details of the agenda. The last such meeting was held in 1980, to introduce Kim Jong-il as the successor to his father, Kim Il-sung. The gathering was originally scheduled for “early September,” as announced by KCNA, and the slight delay touched off speculation about cutthroat internal wrangling over the alleged dynastic succession, Kim Jong-il’s deteriorating health and flooded roads and washed-out bridges that made travel difficult.
John Delury, a professor of international relations at Yonsei University in Seoul, was in Pyongyang last week for meetings with North Korean officials and said the buzz was clearly starting to build around the landmark meeting.
“This is a party meeting, and these are very rare in North Korean history,” Mr. Delury said in an interview on Monday.
Some analysts said they believed Kim Jong-un was almost certain to be named his father’s successor and perhaps given one of eight Politburo seats. Others were more cautious, suggesting his ascendancy could still be undone by political infighting.
Kim Jong-il, 68, is believed to have suffered a stroke in August 2008, and there has since been wide speculation about his health. Some who have seen him in person say he appears wan and diminished, while others say he appears active and alert, despite a slight limp.
“At the very least,” Mr. Sneider said, “the last year tells us that Kim Jong-il knows he doesn’t have the kind of time to prepare his son for succession that he enjoyed.”
At the last Workers’ Party meeting in 1980, Kim Jong-il, then 38, was named to several party posts and confirmed as the sole successor to his father. All told, he had spent more than two decades learning the ropes of North Korean politics and statecraft when he finally took control upon the death of his father in 1994. (Following Confucian tradition, he waited another three years before taking power under his own name.)
If he is proclaimed the heir apparent, Kim Jong-un is unlikely to have such a lengthy apprenticeship.
Some North Korea watchers said they also would be watching for signs about the political fortunes of Mr. Jang, Kim Jong-il’s brother-in-law and the head of the party’s powerful administration department. Mr. Jang’s influence has expanded in recent years as Kim Jong-il has relied more heavily on close relatives, according to Cheong Seong-chang, a North Korea expert at Sejong Institute.