SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korean leader Kim Jong-il’s son, Jong-un, became his second in command at the ruling Workers’ Party’s powerful Central Military Commission on Wednesday, teeing him up for succession.
Kim Jong-un, believed to have been born in 1983 or 1984 and given his first public title on Tuesday as an army general, was also made a Central Committee member at the first party conference in 30 years, state news agency KCNA said.
The party meeting, where KCNA said Kim Jong-il was in attendance, also made the leader’s sister and her husband members of the political bureau and elevated long-time loyal family aides to its supreme leadership body.
The pair, Kim Kyong-hui and Jang Song-thaek, are seen as key backers of Jong-un as the North pushes ahead with succession plans amid reports its leader’s health is worsening.
Kim Jong-il, 68, is believed to have suffered a stroke in 2008, but shows no sign of relaxing his grip on power, underlined by his reappointment on Tuesday as secretary-general of the Workers’ Party.
Jong-un’s elevation is unlikely to affect U.S. policy on the North, the focus of which are long-standing efforts to roll back Pyongyang’s nuclear arms drive that has taken a riskier turn as the destitute state tries to turn it into a source of hard cash.
“Washington continues to await tangible signs of real North Korean intent to resume its denuclearization commitments,” Bruce Klingner of the Heritage Foundation said.
“While some analysts naively believe that the accession of the western-educated Kim Jong-un to power would lead to a softening of North Korean policy, there is no evidence that he would pursue policies any less hardline or belligerent than his father,” he said.
Regional powers are watching the party conference, the biggest meeting of its kind for 30 years, for any sign of change in the destitute state’s policies.
“The truth is that we know remarkably little about Kim Jong-il’s youngest son,” said U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell, who oversees Washington’s policy on East Asia, which is home to the world’s second and third largest economies.
Financial markets see the preferred outcome of the meeting as a continuation of the current system and relative stability, even though the economy is in near ruin and the internationally ostracized government is trying to build a nuclear arsenal.
The biggest fear is that the country could collapse, triggering a flood of refugees or even fighting on the divided peninsula. That could hit hard the economies of neighboring South Korea, China and Japan which together account for about 20 percent of global economic output.
Experts warn of potential infighting over the rise of the Kim’s unproven son.
“Succession of power may lead to factional fighting and incur tremendous economic cost that will make the Korean peninsula a powder keg,” said Shotaro Yachi, a special envoy for Japan and former vice minister for foreign affairs.
KCNA said leader Kim’s sister, Kyong-hui, was named to the Workers’ Party Political Bureau. Her sharp rise in prominence in recent months when she has been seen frequently by her brother’s side added to speculation that she had taken up a key role in ensuring her nephew’s accession.
Her husband and a key confidant of the leader, Jang Song-thaek, has been named an alternate Political Bureau member, KCNA said. He had been considered as the likely principal regent until Jong-un has his own power base.
The country’s cabinet premier, its parliament chief and two loyal army generals have been named to the Presidium of the party political bureau, the top party leadership body of which leader Kim had been a sole surviving member.
Little is known about Jong-un even by intensely secretive North Korean standards, beyond sketchy information that he went to school in Switzerland and is his father’s favorite.
The last party conference 30 years ago put Kim, then 38, on the path to succeed his father Kim Il-sung, the state founder and now its eternal president, by taking a Workers’ Party title.
Experts say North Korea is readying for a father-and-son leadership. If Kim Jong-il died suddenly, his son would be surrounded by close family confidants who have been appointed to senior positions in the Workers’ Party and military in recent months.
The party meeting takes place as the North tries to work around U.N. sanctions, adopted in 2006 and 2009 in response to Pyongyang’s two nuclear tests, and justify its pledge to become a “powerful and prosperous” nation by 2012.
Two visits to ally China this year by Kim Jong-il, who rarely travels abroad, were in part seen as bids for economic support.
(Additional reporting by Paul Eckert in Washington; Editing by Louise Ireland)