World's worst dictator picks his son as successor
North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il's youngest son, Kim Jong-un, has been promoted as a military general, the clearest sign yet that he is in line to succeed his father as the country's leader.
Despite his visibly fragile health, North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il was also on Tuesday reappointed as the General Secretary of the ruling Workers' Party of Korea at a crucial conference in Pyongyang.
The appointment came hours after delegates of the ruling Workers' Party arrived in the North Korean capital on Monday.
The prospect of a Western-educated son taking over from an ailing Kim Jong-Il, may sound promising, but according to the Christian Science Monitor (CSM), regional analysts are generally more focused on whether such a young leader, especially one with knowledge of a prosperous and free world beyond North Korea's borders, be more apt to press for changes to bring his country into the 21st century?
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Image: South Koreans watch a television news report showing the person believed to be Kim Jong-un at the Seoul railway station
Photographs: Jo Yong-Hak/Reuters
'Jong-un will be merely a rubber-stamp dictator'
The second crucial question arising in their minds is -- Or would such a young and untested newcomer to the North's leadership be most anxious to prove his toughness to the country's military hierarchy?
Jong-Il's sister, Kyong-hui, has also been named a general. She is married to Chang Song-taek, seen by some analysts as North Korea's second-most powerful leader.
Andrei Lankov, a North Korean expert at Kookmin University in Seoul, said that speculation was clearly starting to build around the meeting.
"I think he (Jong-un) is chosen exactly because he is young. He will be a dictator, but merely a rubber-stamp dictator. This is what the people in the positions of power want," The New York Times quoted Lankov, as saying.
Image: Portraits of North Korea's founder and Kim Il-sung (L) and his son and current leader Kim Jong-il are hung at an observation post in Seoul
Photographs: Lee Jae-Won/Reuters
The 'young general' has a military background
The succession is being closely watched because of North Korea's nuclear programme and hostility with South Korea.
Little is known about Jong-un, and most of what is has been culled from defectors and websites that collect information from sources in the North.
In North Korean news media he has been referred to as the 'Young General,' 'Youth Captain Kim' and even 'CNC,' short for computer numerical control, to demonstrate his bona fides as a leader for the 21st century.
He is said to have attended boarding or military school in Switzerland and spent several years in the military.
Image: A North Korean soldier stands guard on the banks of the Yalu river near Sinuiju
With Kim Jong's health fading, the succession is closely watched
Captain Kim Jong-Il had assumed office as the WPK general secretary on October 8, 1997.
He is reportedly suffering from several illnesses, and is believed to have had a stroke two years ago. He has also travelled to China for treatment.
According to the Xinhua news agency, the nomination shows an absolute support for and confidence in the top leader by the party and people.
North Korea is the world's only family-run communist dictatorship.
Image: North Korean leader Kim Jong-il visits the Pyongyang Cornstarch Factory in this undated picture
'It could be a very dangerous period'
"At first glance this can seem like a good thing -- that with new people in power, maybe a younger generation will be more open to modernising the country and opening up to the West," says Jim Walsh, a North Korea expert in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's security studies programme.
"But in the near term any transition is likely to be bad news. The "natural inclination" of any new leader, and especially a young and untried one, he says, would be "to be more assertive in a period of vulnerability," he adds.
He further says: "We will have to get through what could be a very dangerous period."
Image: North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il participates in the 12th Supreme People's Assembly
Experts foresee a period of risk and turbulence
Many US officials and North Korea experts foresee a period of risk and turbulence ahead as a new and untried leadership moves to prove itself.
."Most of the senior military leaders would be 50 to 55 years older than this son, so they'd have to be asking themselves how much longer they would have a role in the government," says Bruce Bennett, a senior defense analyst at the Rand Corp. in Santa Monica, California.
He adds: "And we know that when replacements take place in North Korea they usually occur as the result of a purge or a 'traffic accident,' so that could be cause for some instability."
Image: Activists wear masks depicting the North Korean leader and his son
Photographs: Jo Yong-Hak/Reuters
US officials are taking a wait-and-see approach
At least publicly, US officials are taking a wait-and-see approach to events in North Korea, suggesting that at most the US will consult with partners in the region on the ramifications of any transition in leadership.
"The United States is watching developments in North Korea carefully, and we will be engaged with all of our partners in the Asian Pacific region as we try to assess the meaning of what's transpiring there," said Kurt Campbell, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, in comments to reporters Monday.
"Obama used to say talking is not a reward, talking is a way to protect US national interests," says MIT's Walsh.
He adds: "This is exactly the time we need to be talking to North Korea, so we avoid the misperceptions and miscalculations that could lead to some very unfortunate circumstances."
Rand analyst Bennett says this may be the moment for the US to extend a hand, in particular toward the North Korean people.
Image: A giant statue of Kim Il Sung in central Pyongyang