After weeks of anticipation, Workers' Party officials from across North Korea have convened in Pyongyang for a rare party conference set to begin on Tuesday. But before the festivities kicked off, despotic leader Kim Jong Il promoted his youngest son, the little-known Kim Jong Un, to the rank of four-star general — a sign, observers say, that the young man is "being queued up to succeed his father." (Watch an ITN News report about the promotion.) Here's a quick guide to North Korea's succession drama:
Why would Kim Jong Il name a successor now?
The 68-year-old leader is reportedly in poor health, having suffered a stroke in August of last year. There are also rumors that he suffers from diabetes and needs periodic kidney dialysis. Observers believe he wants to use his remaining time make sure his son is well-positioned to take over, helping him build a "his own power base" so he will "face fewer threats" when he takes the reins.
Who is Kim Jong Un?
Widely considered to be Kim Jong Il's favorite son and presumed successor, Kim Jong Un, thought to be 27 or 28, is known in North Korea as the "Brilliant Comrade." He is rumored to have worked in the General Political Department of the North Korean Army and at the State Security Ministry. Some Korea watchers have dubbed him "the idiot son." Educated in Europe, he is reportedly a hard partier and obsessed with Jean-Claude Van Damme movies.
Why is this conference so significant?
The last party congress was called in 1980 when Kim Il Sung — Kim Jong Il's father — ruled the country; it was intended to "solidify the position of the Dear Leader as heir apparent to the Great Leader," says Bill Powell at Time. Kim Jong Il would not actually take power until his father died 14 years later, but his appointment as party secretary at the congress gave him new standing and prestige within the party. It is thought Kim Jong Un will be given a similar ceremonial nod at this year's congress.
Does Kim Jong Un face any major rivals?
The most immediate challenge would likely come from Jang Song Taek, the brother-in-law of Kim Jong Il. Jang was named second-in-charge after Kim's stroke last year, and was also tasked with acting as Kim Jong Un's "caretaker." A former head of North Korea's internal security, Jang was exiled by Kim Jong Il in 2003 for his perceived ambition. He has only recently returned to favor with the ailing dictator.
Is Kim Jong Il expected give up power anytime soon?
It's unlikely, say Robert Carlin and Joel Wit at Foreign Policy. "Many observers have convinced themselves that Kim Jong Il's regime is living on borrowed time," but we're not buying it. The 68-year-old is still "active, in control of his faculties, lucid, and on top of his brief." He'll probably be around for a while yet.
The article was originally published on Sept. 14, 2010. It was updated on Sept. 28.
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