News / Asia

North Korea Releases Photo of Apparent Successor

In this undated photo released on Thursday, Sept. 30, 2010, by Korean Central News Agency, North Korean Leader Kim Jong Il, right, poses for a group photo with newly elected members of the central leadership body of the Workers Party of Korea and the part
In this undated photo released on Thursday, Sept. 30, 2010, by Korean Central News Agency, North Korean Leader Kim Jong Il, right, poses for a group photo with newly elected members of the central leadership body of the Workers Party of Korea and the part

North Korea has released the first official photo of Kim Jong Un, the son and apparent successor of leader Kim Jong Il. The photo was released after a landmark ruling party meeting that appointed the novice politician to key party and military posts.

Kim Jong Un appears serious in the photo, sitting unsmiling in the front row of 200 senior North Korean leaders. The fleshy 20-something is two-seats away from Kim Jong Il, wearing a dark track suit similar to his father's khaki suit. The rest of the officials wear business attire or a military uniform.

The photo, published in North Korea's official newspaper, marks the end of a rare Workers' Party conference in which analysts had expected Kim Jong Un to be named his father's successor. But Gordon Flake, a Korea expert with the Mansfield Foundation in Washington, says the process is much more complicated than that.

"What we're seeing here is not the succession. What we're seeing here is the first public indications of the beginning of the process of potential succession," Flake says.  "But Kim Jong Il is still in power. And so this really is not an institutional rule. This is a personal family rule."

Military Promotions for Kim's Inner Circle

During this week's conference, Kim Jong Un and his aunt were promoted to the rank of four-star general, despite both having little prior military experience. Kim Jong Un also joined his uncle in overseeing a key defense commission.

The army, with more than a million members, has long been a linchpin of the North Korean state and Kim Jong Il further increased its importance following the devastating famine of the 1990s. Abe Denmark of the Center for A New American Security in Washington says giving the young Kim and his aunt and uncle senior positions in the defense agency is a way of legitimizing them in the eyes of the public and the government.

"When Kim Jong Il took power from his father, he relied on a lot of institutions that helped manage the state when he came up and that he got rid of a lot of those institutions as potential competitors for influence and power," Denmark said.

He said Kim Jong Il's recent promotion of the National Defense Council may be an attempt to rebuild some of those institutions to help with the succession.

Flake, of the Mansfield Foundation, says the overnight promotion of Kim's immediate family is bound to create tensions within the old guard, making an already volatile situation even more uncertain.

"I mean if there's any cause for angst in the last week, of course, it's for all these old generals who have now just seen six new four-star generals pop up, including a 27-year-old kid…who has no military background whatsoever," Flake said.

Economic Policy Could Divide Post-Kim Government

The inner workings of North Korean politics are shrouded in mystery, leaving analysts and even the North Korean people guessing about how the tensions could play out.

Choi Jin-wook, with Seoul's government-run Korean Institute for National Reunification, says the North's desperate need to boost its economy could play a key role in any internal power struggles. He says if Pyongyang adopts a reconciliatory approach toward South Korea for economic gain, the division between the military's old guard and the new political leaders could widen.

"If the military is opposed to the party's so-called reconciliatory policy toward outside world, the military might take a kind of provocative action against South Korea or outside world," he said.

North and South Korea held their first military talks in two years on Thursday, focusing in part on the sinking of a South Korean warship in March. An international probe blamed Pyongyang for the attack, which some analysts have suggested may have been orchestrated to help Kim Jong Un appear strong.

That theory is disputed, but analysts do agree that North Korea's ruling elite are unlikely to show any dissatisfaction with Kim Jong Il's leadership choices as long as he is still alive. After he is gone, there is little indication whether a young, inexperienced ruler can hold his own amidst a paranoid older generation.

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