Mr. Kim Jong Un, the third and youngest son of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, has joined the leadership of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea. Party delegates on Tuesday elected him as a member of the party’s Central Committee and as a vice chairman of the party’s Central Military Commission, a position apparently created for him. On Monday, he was named a general of the Korean People’s Army. The move has made it clear that the young Kim will become North Korea’s next leader at a time when his father’s health is reported to be deteriorating following a stroke in 2008.

The assumption of the military positions by Mr. Kim Jong Un shows that North Korea will continue to pursue its songun military-first policy line.

Information about the 27-year-old young Kim is scant. He was born on Jan. 8, 1983. His mother, Ms. Ko Yong Hui, a Japanese-born dancer, is said to have died in 2004. He attended a Swiss international school while in his teens. He is said to have studied later at Kim Il Sung Military University and to have taken initiative in gathering young researchers, leading to the launch of an experimental communications satellite via the Unha-2 rocket in April 2009.

Mr. Kim Jong Il has crafted a system in which people close to him will help the third-generation successor of his family dynasty but no officials will threaten his heir’s position. Ms. Kim Kyong Hui, the current leader’s younger sister, who is in charge of light industry affairs, was named a general and elected as one of the 17 Political Bureau members and her husband Jang Song Thaek, a vice chairman of the National Defense Commission and director of the party’s Administration Department, was elected as a member of the Central Military Commission.

Mr. Ri Yong Ho, chief of the general staff of the Korean People’s Army, was promoted from general to vice marshal and elected as a vice chairman of the Central Military Commission, the same rank as Mr. Kim Jong Un, and one of six members of the Presidium of the Political Bureau. He is also expected to assist the young Kim.

Mr. Kim Jong Il was re-elected as party general secretary in the conference of party delegates, the first since 1966. He also heads the National Defense Commission, the Central Military Commission and the Presidium of the Political Bureau.

It is noteworthy that Mr. Jang was not elected as a member of the Political Bureau. Instead, he was elected as one of 15 alternate members of the bureau. Mr. Oh Guk Ryol, a vice chairman of the National Defense Commission and an influential figure of the military, also failed to be elected as a Political Bureau member.

Conspicuously Mr. Kim Jong Un did not join the Political Bureau or the party’s Secretariat. His position has not yet reached a level in terms of political ranking that matches the position Mr. Kim Jong Il secured as an heir to his father Kim Il Sung in 1980. At that time, Mr. Kim Jong Il was elected not only as party secretary and a member of the Central Military Commission but also as a member of the Presidium of the Political Bureau. By that time, he had beaten his father’s younger brother Kim Yong Ju and his half-brother Kim Pyong Il in political struggle.

Mr. Kim Jong Un has only been made a heir to his father thanks to a hereditary system the latter devised. He has not yet proven his political leadership. North Korea has a goal of “opening the big gate of a strong and prosperous nation” in 2012 when the father will be 70 years old. The young Kim must prove his political ability by that time.

He also inherits a negative legacy. North Korea has become isolated in the international community because of its nuclear weapons development program, its past abduction of Japanese nationals, etc. South Korea accuses the North of sinking a South Korean corvette in March with a torpedo, killing 46 seamen. The sinking incident has pitted North Korea and its ally China against South Korea, Japan and the United States.

Earlier this month, North Korea promoted Mr. Kang Sok Ju, who has been in charge of negotiations with the U.S. and nuclear affairs, from first vice foreign minister to a vice premiership in an apparent attempt to smoothen relations with the U.S. But unless the North makes a concrete move to abolish its nuclear weapons program and solve the issue of the abducted Japanese nationals, improvement of its ties with the U.S. and neighboring countries will be difficult.

Domestically the redenomination of the North Korean currency, the won, in November 2009 was a disaster, further making people’s lives difficult. North Korea is also facing economic sanctions. Joint editorials published in North Korean newspapers on Jan. 1 termed the improvement of people’s lives as the country’s No. 1 task. North Korea should give priority to pulling people out of their dire economic conditions, departing from its military-first politics. As a future leader, Mr. Kim Jong Un must realize this.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.