WASHINGTON—North Korea’s naming of leader Kim Jong Il’s son as a four-star general and member of the Workers' Party Central Committee is aimed at securing his domestic prestige before establishing him as his father’s successor, according to analysts.
Balbina Hwang, a visiting professor at Georgetown University, said the appointments are meant to show North Korea’s elite that the 27-year-old Kim Jong Un is being groomed to take over leadership of the country after his father’s death.
“Clearly this is the first step, and it’s the first step for them to establish bringing Kim Jong Un into the fold,” Hwang said.
“This to me shows a very careful, calculated, step-by-step … [method] of establishing his functions and roles. So we really have to view this purely as a domestic thing,” she said.
Kim Jong Il has been in poor health since suffering a stroke in 2008, and experts believe the announcement, made just prior to the largest ruling party conference in 30 years, is an effort to speed up the succession process.
Hwang said the announcement, which also included the promotion to four-star general of Kim Jong Il’s sister, 64-year-old Kim Kyong Hui, means that the base of North Korean political power will continue to lie within the military establishment.
Bruce Klingner, senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, called Kim Jong Un’s promotions “the first tangible sign of the North Korean leadership succession after many years of rumors.”
“Indeed, it is the first time his name has been publicly mentioned by the North Korean media,” Klingner wrote in a research note.
Building a power base
John Park, director of the Korea Working Group at the Washington-based U.S. Institute of Peace, said that in addition to making clear his designation as future leader, the younger Kim’s new military rank serves to build his power base and financial backing.
“If you look at how the North Korean economy and the North Korean state trading companies are run, there is a heavy hand from the military side,” Park said.
“If you use that lens, the appointment of Kim Jong Un as a four-star general has implications in terms of money generation for the regime going forward,” he said.
“It is about succession, but it’s [also] from the other angle of preparing for revenue streams for Kim Jong Un, as well as the new leadership group.”
Park said that the promotion of the two family members will further garner financial backing for the Kim clan as they take a hand in the management of North Korea’s state-run industries.
“Certainly these are military titles, but in practice, it looks like it also has a functional management aspect—almost as very senior, very powerful board members on a board of directors of a corporation,” he said.
Youth and inexperience
Hwang said that one disadvantage Kim Jong Un will have to overcome in his bid for power is the perception that he will be weaker than his father due to youth and inexperience.
“Having said that, Kim Jong Il himself had a credibility problem, and he was being groomed for over 10 years. And by the time that he took over … people actually said that he was too young,” Hwang said.
“In a Confucian society like North Korea, yes, 27 seems awfully young. On the other hand, that’s not what is going to give him legitimacy,” she said.
“He is the blood heir to Kim Il Sung, the founder … He will have to struggle a little bit more, but I frankly don’t see that as a big problem.”
Nicholas Eberstadt, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, agreed that the younger Kim’s powerful lineage will protect him from any domestic dissent.
“The system’s legitimacy is so deeply fused to the Kim family that thinking about a non-Kim family in [North Korea] at the moment is like thinking about the unthinkable,” Eberstadt said.
“Anyone in the top military leadership who had ambitions for a non-Kim configuration of decision makers in North Korea’s future had better seem more loyal to the Kim family than anybody in the universe,” he said.
“It’s very difficult for outsiders to observe any discontent, reservations, or hesitations on the part of such people, because it would be very bad for their health.”
Changes in policy?
Hwang said that despite Kim Jong Un’s youth and rumored education abroad, he is unlikely to reform the policies of the Kim Jong Il regime.
“I don’t think that logically follows at all. Just because he is young doesn’t make him reform-minded,” she said.
Klingner agreed that little is likely to change in the event that Kim Jong Il’s third and youngest son takes over as the leader of North Korea.
“While some analysts naively believe that the accession of the western-educated Kim Jong Un to power would lead to a softening of North Korean policy, there is no evidence that he would pursue policies any less hard-line or belligerent than his father,” Klingner said.
Eberstadt noted that the announcement of the younger Kim’s promotion ahead of the Workers’ Party Conference in the capital Pyongyang only concerns military affairs, and that further reconfigurations may provide clues to the future course of North Korean policy.
“What hasn’t been hinted at … are the directions the regime will be instructed to take—the strategies [North Korea] will be commanded to pursue in achieving the glorious goal of becoming a ‘powerful and prosperous state’ by the stipulated deadline of 2012,” Eberstadt said.
“That’s not so far away now. Powerful? You can say that a state claiming nuclear weapon status is a powerful state.”
“How about prosperous? Are we going to see any hint or clues as to how the leadership intends to revive the economy’s continuing semi-comatose, life support-requiring, foreign aid-requiring status towards something more productive and on a more positive path? We haven’t really heard anything about that—so stay tuned.”
Reported by Joshua Lipes.