Image: Delegates to the North Korea's Worker's Party meeting
AP
In this photo released by Korean Central News Agency via Korea News Service, delegates to the ruling Worker's Party meeting make their way upon arriving at Pyongyang station, North Korea, on Monday.
msnbc.com news services
updated 9/27/2010 8:57:00 PM ET 2010-09-28T00:57:00

North Korea's ailing leader Kim Jong-il has named his youngest son as a military general, state media said early on Tuesday, marking the first stage of a dynastic succession.

It was the first time the 20-something Kim Jong-un had been mentioned by name in the North's media, and his appointment came just hours before the start of a rare ruling party meeting to elect its supreme leadership.

Kim Jong-il, 68, is believed to have suffered a stroke in 2008, but despite his declining health is not expected to go into retirement just yet, experts say. They say his son is too young and inexperienced to fully take the reins.

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State news agency KCNA said Kim had issued a directive bestowing military rank on six people including Jong-un, the leader's sister Kyong-hui and Choe Ryong-hae, who is considered a loyal aide of Kim and his family.

Kim Jong-il "indicated in the directive that he ... confers the military titles to members of the Korean People's Army with the firm belief they will complete their honorable mission and duty on the occasion of the 65th anniversary of the Workers' Party of Korea," the report said.

Intelligence officials say the youngest son of the "Dear Leader" was identified last year as next in line to take power in a country which for years has been punished by international sanctions for trying to develop nuclear weapons.

"Kim Jong Un's promotion is the starting point for his formal succession to power," said Kim Yong-hyun, a North Korea expert at Seoul's Dongguk University.

He said the North's "songun," or "military first" policy — in which priority is given to the armed forces — will play an important role in establishing the succession.

The son is believed to have been born in 1983 or 1984 but little is known about him, even by intensely secretive North Korean standards, beyond the sketchy information that he went to school in Switzerland and has been his father's favorite.

Regional powers will be keeping close tabs on the Workers' Party conference, the biggest meeting of its kind for 30 years, for any signs of change which could have an impact on the destitute state's economic and foreign policies.

A South Korean newspaper reported Monday that the younger Kim was chosen as a military delegate to the conference. The party's central committee then put out internal propaganda proclaiming him to be Kim Jong Il's sole successor, the Chosun Ilbo newspaper said, citing a source in North Korea that it did not identify.

Washington said it was too early to tell how the country's leadership may be evolving or how other nations should respond.

"The United States is watching developments in North Korea carefully and we will be engaged with all of our partners in the Asia-Pacific region as we try to assess the meaning of what's transpiring there," Kurt Campbell, the top U.S. diplomat for the Asia-Pacific region, told reporters.

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Financial markets see the preferred outcome of the meeting as an approximate continuation of the current system. The biggest concern is any sign of collapse that could result in internal unrest, massive refugee flows and military exchanges.

China and Japan are the world's number two and three economies and, with South Korea, account for close to 20 percent of global economic output. Instability on the Korean peninsula could have grave implications for the global economy.

"Should the conference itself open the door for an orderly leadership change and in one way or another economic reform, we see a great deal of underlying, long-term economic benefit for a united Korean economy," said Goohoon Kwon, Korea economist and co-head of research at Goldman Sachs in Seoul.

At the last such party meeting three decades ago, Kim, then aged 38, embarked on the path to succeed his father Kim Il-sung, the state founder, by taking on a Workers' Party title.

'Striking' announcement
"It's striking that the big announcement coming out of a party conference is not a party position but a military position," said Marcus Noland, a North Korea expert at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington.

"This attests to the centrality of the military in governing North Korea today," he said, adding this followed the pattern of his father's succession.

By signaling the young Kim's rise, experts say North Korea is readying for a collective father-and-son leadership, which will cement the family's grip on power.

In the event Kim Jong-il died suddenly, his son, by then identified as figurehead leader, would be surrounded by close family confidants who have been appointed to senior positions in the Workers' Party and military in recent months.

Kim's appointment of his sister to a military role underlined his resolve to ensure a smooth transition, Noland said. "This is belt and suspenders, keeping it in the family to create another general in the family at the older generation to play some kind of regent role," he said.

His uncle, Jang Song-Thaek, was also promoted to a powerful military post earlier this year, and analysts say he is most likely to act as his principal regent until the young Kim can build his own power base.

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The party meeting takes place at a time of great hardship for the impoverished North as it 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.

Cash-strapped
The North is hopelessly low in cash, and Kim's two visits to China this year were in part seen as bids for economic support. Exacerbating its problems, a botched currency reform last year triggered inflation and wiped out ordinary citizens' savings.

The meeting comes amid a flurry of diplomatic activity in the region after Pyongyang expressed readiness to return to nuclear disarmament talks, which have been in limbo since 2008 when the mercurial North walked out and said they were finished. China has hosted the on-again-off-again talks since they began in 2003.

The country's military has already thrown their support behind Kim Jong Un, according to a South Korean newspaper, which is seen as vital in a smooth power transition.

Separately, the United States and South Korea began military exercises Monday in waters off the Korean peninsula, weeks after they were delayed by a typhoon.

The drills, set to run through Friday, are being conducted in the Yellow Sea off the peninsula's west coast, where a South Korean naval warship sank in late March near the inter-Korean maritime border. Seoul and Washington blame Pyongyang for torpedoing the ship, though the North denies responsibility.

The exercises are the second in a series of joint maneuvers focusing on anti-submarine warfare tactics, techniques, and procedures, said Cmdr. Won Hyung-seok of the South Korean Defense Ministry.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

Interactive: North Korea succession

Photos: Kim Jong Il through the years

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  1. Happy family

    Kim Jong Il as a child with his father Kim Il Sung and first wife Kim Jong Suk. (Noboru Hashimoto / Corbis Sygma) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Young student

    A1963 photo from North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency, Kim Jong Il when he was a student of Kim Il Sung University in Pyongyang, North Korea. (Korean Central News Agency via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. With his friends

    Kim Jong Il, second person from right, takes part of a souvenir picture with his friends in this undated photo. (Korean Central News Agency via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Official business

    In his young days working at the Central Committee of WPK (Worker's Party of Korea). (Korean Central News Agency via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Training exercise

    Kim Jong Il leads the firearms training of the February 2nd National Sport Defense team members while he was working at the Central Committee of WPK (Worker's Party of Korea). (Korean Central News Agency via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Meeting with farmers

    Kim Jong Il talks with farmers when he was in the Central Committee, May 21, 1971. (Korean Central News Agency via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Test drive

    Kim Jong Il takes a test drive of a play equipment combat plane in Taesong amusement park, Pyongyang in North Korea,Oct. 2, 1977. (Korean Central News Agency via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Filmmaking

    Kim Jong Il gives advice at the shooting of "An Jung Geun Avenges Hirobumi Ito," a narrative film. (Korean Central News Agency via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Father and son

    Kim Jong Il was anointed successor to his father, Kim Il Sung, in 1980. Known as the "Great Leader," Kim Il Sung and his son are shown attending a Korean Worker's Party convention in October of that year. (AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Family portrait

    Kim Jong Il, bottom left, poses memebers of his family in this 1981 photo in Pyongyang, North Korea. Sitting at right is his son, Jong-Nam, Kim's sister-in-law Sung Hye-Rang stands at top left with her daughter Lee Nam-Ok, center and son Lee Il-Nam, top right. While virtually nothing is known about the leader's personal life, an attempt by his first-born son Kim Jong Nam, bottom right, to enter Japan on a false passport in May, 2001, briefly shone a light onto his family's private dealings. (AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Applause please

    Kim Jong Il meets with Korean People's Army personnel in this Sept., 1988, photo. North Korea is believed to be the most heavily militarized country in the world on a per capita basis. (AFP) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Like father, like son

    North Korean leader Kim Jong Il stands next to his father, Kim Il Sung, inspecting a football field in Pyongyang. (AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Silent famine

    Residents of Taziri, North Korea, wait for Red Cross food supplies in December 1995, not long after the death of Kim Il Sung left Kim Jong Il in control of the country. At the time, around 130,000 North Koreans were reportedly on the brink of famine and 500,000 were homeless. (Calvi Parisetti / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Kim looking at things

    North Korean leader Kim Jong Il inspects cucumbers harvested inside the 770th army base near Nyon Won power plant in Pyonan-Namdo. (AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Frenemies?

    South Korean President Kim Dae-jung, right, hugs North Korean leader Kim Jong Il at the end of their summit meeting at the airport in Pyongyang, North Korea. The two leaders held historic talks for three days in June 2000. (Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. A visitor from Russia

    Kim Jong Il walks with Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, as he arrived in Pyongyang in July 2000 for talks on halting North Korea's missile-development program. (Itar-tass / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Toasting the U.S.

    Kim Jong Il toasts U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright at a dinner in Pyongyang in October 2000. The visit was part of an coordinated effort by Washington and its allies South Korea and Japan to end the country's isolation. (Chien-min Chung / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. A giant leader

    A portrait of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il displayed at an entrance of the foreign ministry in Pyongyang August 2002. (Shingo Ito / AFP/Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Welcoming Japan

    Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, left, shakes hands with Kim Jong Il after signing a joint statement at the end of a one-day summit in Pyongyang on Sept. 17, 2002. North Korea admitted to kidnapping Japanese citizens in the 1970s and 1980s and using them to train spies. (AFP) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Crowds in the square

    In January 2003, more than one million people gathered on Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang to hear political leaders hail North Korea's dramatic decision to withdraw from the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. (AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Tearful goodbyes

    Emotional South Koreans bid farewell to their North Korean families following a brief reunion in July 2004. The families were separated by the border that was imposed after fighting ended in 1953. (Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. X marks the spot

    A South Korean protester holds a picture of Kim Jong Il marked with a cross during a rally in Seoul on July 7, 2006. Demonstrators denounced Pyongyang's test-firing of seven missiles. (Lee Jin-man / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Wining and dining

    South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun joins Kim Jong Il at a farewell lunch in Pyongyang on Oct. 4, 2007, after the two sides signed a pledge to seek a peace treaty to replace the 54-year-old cease-fire that ended the Korean War. With no treaty in place, the two countries technically are still at war. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Military matters

    Kim Jong Il visits a military unit in this picture released by North Korea's official news agency on Aug. 11, 2008. It was Kim's last public appearance before intelligence officials suggested he had fallen gravely ill. (KCNA / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. In the public eye again

    In this image taken from North Korea's KRT state television, Kim Jong II attends the first session of the Supreme People's Assembly on April 9, 2009, in Pyongyang. It was his first major public appearance since reportedly suffering a stroke in August 2008. (APTN) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Paying his respects

    A gaunt-looking Kim Jong Il, sitting center in the front row, is surrounded by high-ranking officials during a ceremony marking the 15th anniversary of his father's death on July 8, 2009. Kim Il Sung, who founded North Korea, remains known as the country's"eternal president." (KCNA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Visit from Clinton

    Former U.S. President Bill Clinton, right, meets with Kim Jong Il, left front, in Pyongyang on Aug. 4, 2009. North Korea pardoned and released two detained U.S. journalists, Laura Ling and Euna Lee, after the meeting. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Calling on a cotton farm

    Kim Jong Il inspects a cotton plant farm of the Korean People's Army's 1596 unit on Nov. 29, 2009. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. Meet-and-greet

    Kim Jong Il waves as people including soldiers applaud during a visit to the construction site of the Kumyagang Army-People Power Station in South Hamgyong Province in an undated picture released by North Korea's Central News Agency in August, 2010. (AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. China visit

    Chinese President Hu Jintao, right, meets with Kim Jong Il in Changchun, in northeast China's Jilin province, on Aug. 27, 2010. (Ju Peng / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. Likely heir

    North Korea's leader Kim Jong Il, seated at center in sunglasses, and his youngest son Kim Jong Un, seated at left, pose for a photo with the newly elected members of the central leadership body of the Workers' Party of Korea (WPK) and the participants in the WPK Conference, at the plaza of the Kumsusan Memorial Palace in Pyongyang in this picture released by the North's KCNA news agency on Sept. 30, 2010. North Korean leader Kim Jong Il anointed his youngest son as successor this week, promoting him to senior political and military positions. (KCNA via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. North Korean leader Kim Jong Il (2nd L) and his youngest son Kim Jong Un (3rd R from Kim Jong-il) visit the cemetery for Chinese soldiers who died during the 1950-53 Korean War in Hoechang County, North Korea, Oct. 26, 2010, in this picture released by North Korea's official KCNA news agency. (KCNA / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  33. North Korea leader Kim Jong Il, right, and his son Kim Jong Un attend a massive military parade to mark the 65th anniversary of the communist nation's ruling Workers' Party in Pyongyang, North Korea on Oct. 10, 2010. Kim Jong Il, North Korea's mercurial and enigmatic leader whose iron rule and nuclear ambitions dominated world security fears for more than a decade, has died. He was 69. (Vincent Yu / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  34. Pass in review

    Kim Jong Il attends a military parade to celebrate the 63rd founding anniversary of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea in Pyongyang on September 9, 2011. (AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  35. A tearful announcer dressed in black announces the death of North Korean leader Kim Jong il on North Korean State Television on Dec. 19, 2011. North Korean leader Kim Jong Il died on a train trip, state television reported on Monday, sparking immediate concern over who is in control of the reclusive state and its nuclear program. The announcer said the 69-year old had died on Saturday of physical and mental over-work on his way to give "field guidance". (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  36. The body of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il is seen inside a glass coffin as people pay their respects, Pyongyang, North Korea, on Dec. 20, 2011. (EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. ARCHIVES : KIM IL SUNG AND KIM JONG IL
    Noboru Hashimoto / Corbis Sygma
    Above: Slideshow (36) The life of Kim Jong ll - Kim Jong Il through the years
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    Slideshow (42) The life of Kim Jong ll - World reacts
  3. Elizabeth Dalziel / AP
    Slideshow (7) Daily life in North Korea

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