• North Korean solidifies its leadership
     | April 12,2012

    SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea completed the hurried transition to its young new leader, Kim Jong Un, on Wednesday, as a confrontation with the United States loomed over the North’s intent to launch a long-range missile.

    The ruling Workers’ Party declared Kim to be “supreme leader” and awarded him the title of first secretary during a party conference, the country’s first major political gathering in one-and-a-half years. The inevitable elevation of Kim later this week to the top defense commission post will complete his rise to the pinnacle of party, military and state leadership, at a speed that analysts in the region said reflected the insecurity of the young leader’s status as much as it did the secretive leadership’s need to have a solid power center in place immediately.

    The country’s Unha or Galaxy rocket is expected to blast off within days. The North says the rocket’s purpose is peaceful, to put a satellite in orbit, but the United States and many other countries see the event as a test of long-range missile technology.

    North Korea is trying to use the celebrations to project the image of a “strong and prosperous nation” and inspire its hunger-stricken people with national pride. North Korea’s national flag and the red hammer-and-sickle flag of the Workers’ Party fluttered across Pyongyang, The Associated Press reported, as party delegates toured historic sites, including the birthplace of the new supreme leader’s grandfather, Kim Il Sung, the revered national founder whose 100th birthday will be celebrated Sunday. Workers scrambled to spruce up the city and plant roadside flowers.

    The Worker’s Party conference gives the young leader — or the senior power elite surrounding him — an opportunity to shuffle party and military leaderships, gradually retiring old stalwarts from his father Kim Jong Il’s days as leader and elevating younger loyalists.

    Such a generation change has been unfolding since Kim Jong Un was officially designated as his father’s successor in the last party meeting, held in September 2010. More signs of the shift came Tuesday, when the Korean Central News Agency revealed that Vice Marshal Kim Jong Gak, a key military political officer widely believed to be Kim Jong Un’s promoter among the military elite, was made People’s Armed Forces Minister, a title equivalent to defense minister.

    Two other senior officials said to have been hand-picked by Kim’s father to help engineer the transfer of power to his son — Choe Ryong Hae and Hyon Chol Hae — were promoted to vice marshal ahead of the party meeting, the news agency said. The rise of Choe was particularly eye-catching, said an analyst, Chong Seong-chang.

    At 61, Choe is relatively young among the top North Korean hierarchy, which has been filled with people in their 80s and 70s. In recent rosters of officials attending state functions in the past week, his name came near the top, among members of the Presidium of the Politburo, indicating that he may have assumed a top party post.

    Choe’s rise also showed that the dynastic transfer of power in Pyongyang was not just for the Kim family but was often for the rest of the elite class as well — a factor that analysts often cite to help explain the cohesion of the Kim rule. Choe’s father fought alongside Kim’s grandfather, when he was leading a group of Korean guerrillas during the Japanese colonial rule from 1910 to 1945. The families of many of those guerrillas remained key members of the top ruling class.

    However, Kim Jong Il never achieved the revered status of his father. On Wednesday, the party decided to leave the previous top post — general secretary — vacant, designating Kim Jong Il “eternal general secretary.” Similarly, when Kim Il Sung died in 1994, he was upheld as “eternal president” of the country.

    “He wanted to show respect to his father, and so created a new top job for him,” said Koh Yu-hwan, a North Korea specialist at Dongguk University in Seoul.

    The move illustrated the long shadows of his forefathers under which the young leader must operate.

    Choi Myeong-hae, a North Korea analyst at Samsung Economic Research Institute in Seoul, said: “Kim Jong Un is an avatar of his father. This may indicate that it’s still his father’s people who make key policy decisions in Pyongyang and that his control of power is incomplete and his position less than secure.”

    Choi said those engineering Kim’s rise to power were those hand-picked by his father, rather than his own choice, indicating that it would take more time for him to establish his own authority.

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