SEOUL, South Korea — North Korean leader Kim Jong Il promoted his youngest son to the rank of general in the Korean People’s Army, the state news agency reported early Tuesday, the clearest signal yet that the 20-something is on track to succeed his father in ruling the impoverished country.
Kim issued an order handing six people — including son Kim Jong Un — the rank of general, the Korean Central News Agency said in a dispatch. Also promoted was Kim Kyong Hui, the elder Kim’s sister.
The report came hours ahead of the start of the ruling Workers’ Party meeting, the country’s biggest political meeting in three decades, and amid intense speculation that the duo could be given key posts at the gathering.
The ailing 68-year-old Kim Jong Il took control of North Korea when his father, the North’s founder Kim Il Sung, died of heart failure in 1994. He has reportedly groomed third son as his heir, and some experts have also said that Kim Kyong Hui might be tapped to oversee a transfer of power if the leader dies before the son is ready to take over.
The question of who will take over from Kim Jong Il, who rules with absolute authority but is believed to suffer from a host of ailments, is important to regional security because of North Korea’s active nuclear and missile programs, and regular threats it makes against rival South Korea — an important U.S. ally.
“Kim Jong Un’s promotion is the starting point for his formal succession to power,” said Kim Yong-hyun, a North Korea expert at Seoul’s Dongguk University.
He said the North’s “songun,” or “military first” policy — in which priority is given to the armed forces — will play an important role in establishing the succession.
Kim Kyong Hui and her husband Jang Song Thaek — vice chairman of the all-powerful National Defence Commission — are likely to act as guardians for the young Kim.