Kim Jong-il's son steps closer to power

Kim Jong-il attends the Workers' Party conference (28 September) The ruling family appears to have its strategy for continuing its leadership worked out

It is rare that we can say anything with any certainty about the internal workings of the North Korean political elite.

But there can now be little doubt that Kim Jong-un, the youngest son of the leader Kim Jong-il, has been chosen as the future leader of this closed and secretive state.

It has been a remarkable rise even by North Korea's own totalitarian standards.

Until recently its citizens may not even have been aware that their leader had a third son.

Simply discussing the ruling family in public can land careless gossips with a spell in a political jail.

But Kim Jong-un, thought to be only 27 or 28 years old, has gone from a political nobody to a very big somebody in the space of just two days.

He was appointed to the rank of a four-star military general, just hours before the rare party conference that is lending a stamp of legitimacy to his elevation.

Then came the news that he had been made Vice Chairman of the Workers' Party Central Military Commission and a member of the party's Central Committee.

Strategy

Many North Koreans may still not be aware of the real significance of the appointments.

They were announced with suitable deference on state TV, but among a batch of promotions of other apparatchiks and with no mention of Kim Jong-un's special family connection.

In the outside world though, the ranks of North Korea-watchers - the pundits, academics and foreign intelligence agencies - are greatly excited.

"It's clearly the biggest news we've had from North Korea since the death of Kim Il-sung," Peter Beck, a North Korea expert now based at Japan's Keio University told the Associated Press.

The country's ruling family appears to have its strategy for continuing its quasi-religious leadership cult all worked out.

Kim Jong-il's influential sister, Kim Kyong-hui, attended the conference, having also been promoted to the rank of military general.

It is thought that the title will be a token of added authority, helping her to steer her young nephew through the early days of the transition.

The few still photographs released so far from the conference hall show Kim Jong-il apparently chairing proceedings.

That, at least, confirms that, although thin and frail, he is well enough to attend and seemingly still in control.

But some observers detect a sense of sudden urgency about what's been going on, suggesting that the leader might be in even poorer health than he looks.

Kim Jong-un, then, may find himself in charge sooner rather than later.

Weighty legacy

So what kind of leader would he be? It's a hard question to answer.

Outside North Korea, very little is known about him, even what he looks like is unclear.

Footage aired on state-run TV showed Kim Jong-un at the Workers' Party Conference

The few photographs that exist are grainy images from his teenage years.

One widely reported detail from his scant biography suggests that he spent a few school years studying in Switzerland under an assumed name, a travel privilege, of course, denied to the vast majority of his fellow North Koreans.

But perhaps the exposure to Western culture will mean he'll be more reform-minded than his father - after all, he is said by former classmates to have been an avid fan of the American NBA basketball league.

But it's also been pointed out that, for example, many of the Middle Eastern oil sheikhs had an expensive Western schooling and it hasn't turned them into liberal democrats.

Professor Andrei Lankov from Seoul's Kookmin University believes that Kim Jong-un's lack of experience is precisely why he has been chosen as heir apparent.

"People around Kim Jong-il want him to be replaced by an obedient leader when he dies, a sort of rubber-stamp dictator," he told me.

"People who are now running the country want to stay in control, they want a weak successor, and he seems to be the weakest of all possible candidates right now."

If Kim Jong-un is to become little more than a puppet, with an elite family and military clique pulling strings behind the scenes, then that also raises the prospect of factionalism and infighting further down the road.

And that's a worrying prospect for North Korea's neighbours who are watching carefully as events unfold.

Whatever the future holds, at least one mystery has been solved fairly quickly.

The first official photograph has finally been released, apparently giving the world its first up-to-date glimpse of the young man who has just been handed a very weighty legacy indeed.

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