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. It marks the first time that Kim Jong Un's name has appeared in official media.
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.
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Kurt M. Campbell said in a conference call that Washington was "watching developments carefully" and was working to interpret the announcement's significance.
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 Defense Commission – are likely to act as guardians for the young Kim during his rise to power.
Many delegates to the party meeting arrived in Pyongyang on Sunday by train and the city was festooned with flags and placards announcing the event, footage shot by broadcaster APTN showed. "Warm congratulations to the representatives meeting of the Workers' Party of Korea!" read one poster.
A South Korean newspaper reported Monday that the younger Kim was chosen as a military delegate to the conference. The party's central committee then put out internal propaganda proclaiming him to be Kim Jong Il's sole successor, the Chosun Ilbo newspaper said, citing a source in North Korea that it did not identify.
Still, some experts said Kim's son – who is thought to be in his mid- to late-20s – may not be ready to officially debut as a successor. So Kim Jong Il's 64-year-old sister might be designated to serve as a caretaker after Kim's death, Yuriko Koike, former Japanese defense minister and national security adviser, wrote in a syndicated column earlier this month.
Cheong Seong-chang, a senior fellow at the Sejong Institute think tank near Seoul, shared the view.
"There is a possibility that she could play the role of a coordinator to make sure the power succession goes smoothly," Cheong said.
Koike wrote that Kim Jong Il himself noted his sister's authority in the communist country in comments before the ruling party's Central Committee, saying "Kim Kyong Hui is myself, the words of Kim Kyong Hui are my words, and instructions issued by Kim Kyong Hui are my instructions."
Koike, now a top official in Japan's Liberal Democratic Party, did not clarify in her column how she knew of these comments.
Kim Kyong Hui, who heads the North Korean ruling party's light industry department, is four years younger than her only biological sibling. Biographical information about her is extremely scarce. But Kim Jong Il's former sushi chef wrote in a 2003 memoir that Kim Kyong Hui is full of charm when it comes to her brother.
"At banquets, she would sit next to Kim Jong Il and kept on saying, 'brother, brother!'" Kenji Fujimoto said. "She very much took after her brother."
A small photo in a book published by South Korea's Unification Ministry shows Kim Kyong Hui with a chubby, bespectacled face and wavy, shoulder-length hair. Footage aired last year by Pyongyang's state television showed her dressed in a light gray parka similar to her brother's while she stood at his side during an inspection trip to a farm.
Koike wrote that Kim Kyong Hui was believed to have a fierce personality, adding that Kim Jong Il is quoted as saying, "When my sister turns violent, no one can stop her. Even I can do nothing."
Jang Sung-min, a former South Korean lawmaker who was involved in foreign affairs, also said Kim Kyong Hui had a special relationship with her brother, citing an unidentified source in Beijing who he says is privy to North Korea affairs.
"Kim Kyong Hui is the only person in the North who can speak frankly to Kim Jong Il and can even be emotional in front of him," said Jang, who authored a book on Kim Jong Il.
Her husband, Jang Song Thaek, was demoted in early 2004 in what analysts believed was a warning from Kim Jong Il against gaining too much influence. But he has since made a political comeback in a rehabilitation engineered by his wife, the former lawmaker said.
There was a big increase in the couple's appearances in KCNA in recent years.
"Kim Kyong Hui's frequent appearances in her brother's field trips showed that she is a key person who can play a role in the power succession," said Kim Yong-hyun, a North Korea expert at Seoul's Dongguk University.
Associated Press writers Peter J. Spielmann in New York and Kelly Olsen and Sangwon Yoon in Seoul contributed to this report.