Last week, Sino-Gist covered the wide speculation amongst the world's media that Kim Jong-il may have been trying to manoeuvre his youngest son (Kim Jong-un) into a more prominent position in the Worker's Party of Korea (WPK). Many picked out the decision by the WPK to hold a rare conference as symbolic of the North Korean leader's mind turning more and more to the issue of who will succeed him.
As numerous newspapers and websites are reporting, on Monday Kim Jong-un was made a four-star general in the Korean army by his father, a sign it seems that the latter has settled on his youngest son as the man who will lead the DPRK once he is gone.
Yesterday's move came as part of an order issued by the DPRK's leader emphasising the importance of the military in North Korea's history. Featured on the website of the Korean Central News Agency (see the article “Kim Jong Il Issues Order on Promoting Military Ranks”), the directive highlighted the role of the army as “devotedly defending the headquarters of the revolution with arms”. Clearly, to compensate for Kim Jong-un's lack of military experience and relative youth, Kim Jong-il is keen to drive the importance of his son's promotion (and the new respect he should be given) home.
It came as little surprise to also read this morning on the website of the KCNA that the North Korean leader was maintained as General Secretary of the WPK at the start of conference. Labelled as the “highest glory and happiness of millions of party members and servicepersons and people of the DPRK”, the Supreme Leader's unanimous re-election was never in doubt. However, the real focus of those observing the conference's proceedings will be on whether Kim Jong-un's military elevation is matched by a similar political promotion. Were he to also be placed in the highest echelons of the WPK, this would be absolute confirmation that Kim Jong-un is the favoured candidate to succeed his father. In addition, such a result would also add strength to the view that Kim Jong-il may not have long to live. The BBC today described him as “visibly frail and sick”- a fact that many believe has galvanised him into action vis a vis his son.
However, as this blog has previously suggested, the speed of Kim Jong-un's rise to prominence may not translate into practical authority in a post Kim Jong-il political environment. His inexperience in North Korean politics and ceremonial military title means that he has had little opportunity to build up his own power base in the country and Party framework. Kim Jong-il had 14 years as heir apparent to Kim Il-sung in which to cultivate his own personal power- Kim Jong-un may be lucky to get 14 months to do the same. With several other contenders to the North Korean 'throne', some of whom are proper military men, not even the DPRK's propaganda machine may be good enough to generate solid support for Kim Jong-un in such a short space of time. Therefore, for now, Kim Jong-un's political rivals will be forced to go along in public with the wishes of his father. Underneath the surface however, the jockeying for position and influence will become ever more frantic as Kim Jong-il continues to deteriorate.