Image: Kim Jong Un
Ahn Young-joon  /  AP
South Koreans watch a TV news program at the Seoul Railway Station on Tuesday. A picture of what is believed to be Kim's youngest son Kim Jong Un is shown on the screen, with a headline reading "Kim Jong Un to the rank of general."
msnbc.com news services
updated 9/28/2010 3:44:34 PM ET 2010-09-28T19:44:34

Kim Jong Il made his mysterious youngest son a four-star general in a promotion seen Tuesday as the first step toward his ascent as the next leader of North Korea — extending the family dynasty in the reclusive totalitarian country to a third generation.

Later, state media said Kim Jong Un had been named a vice chairman of the Central Military Commission of the Workers' Party.

The 68-year-old Kim, who apparently is in deteriorating health, had been expected to bestow a party title on his son, who is in his 20s, though it wasn't immediately clear if the military commission post was it.

The North Korean capital of Pyongyang was decorated with banners and placards celebrating the country's biggest political gathering in 30 years. It was at a similar meeting in 1980 where state media revealed that Kim Jong Il was in line to succeed his father, Kim Il Sung, the country's founder who died in 1994.

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The news of the son's promotion to general was the North Korean media's first mention of Kim Jong Un, who has remained so well-hidden from the outside world that not even his exact age can be confirmed. He is believed to be 27, and is said to have been schooled in Switzerland and educated at Kim Il Sung Military University in Pyongyang.

Analysts saw it as confirmation he is slated to become North Korea's next leader. 

Story: Heir apparent? N. Korea leader promotes son

"As expected, the dynastic transition is becoming public. So far, they are following the pattern we saw in the 1970s when Kim Jong Il himself was moving to become the new Dear Leader," said Andrei Lankov of Kookmin University.

"The difference is that this time they seem to be in a great hurry."

The party meeting takes place as the North 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.

Two visits to ally China by Kim Jong Il — who rarely travels abroad — were in part seen as bids for economic support.

The meeting also 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.

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Regional powers are watching the party conference, the biggest meeting of its kind for 30 years, for any sign of change in the destitute state's policies.

'Crucial developments'
In a brief announcement Tuesday, state TV announced that "crucial developments" were taking place at the convention to elect top party leadership, and that Kim Jong Il was re-elected to the party's top position of general secretary.

"His re-election is an expression of absolute support and trust of all the party members, the servicepersons and the people in Kim Jong Il," the official Korean Central News Agency said.

The meeting was convened "at a historic time," it said, providing no further details about the convention.

There was no mention of his son and no indication whether he would make an appearance at the conference, but observers predicted the son would win key party posts as part of the succession process.

"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.

Financial markets see the preferred outcome of the meeting as a continuation of the current system and relative stability, even though the economy is in near ruin and the internationally ostracized government is trying to build a nuclear arsenal.

The biggest fear is that the country could collapse, triggering a flood of refugees or even fighting on the divided peninsula. That could hit hard the economies of neighboring South Korea, China and Japan which together account for about 20 percent of global economic output.

"Succession of power may lead to factional fighting and incur tremendous economic cost that will make the Korean peninsula a powder keg," said Shotaro Yachi, a special envoy for the Japanese government and former vice minister for foreign affairs.

Experts also warn of potential infighting over the rise of the unproven young Kim.

Family affair
State news agency KCNA said Kim had issued a directive bestowing military rank on six people, including promoting Jong Un and the leader's sister Kyong Hui to general in one of the world's largest armies.

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 is said to be his father's favorite.

With Kim Jong Un still in his 20s and inexperienced, the 64-year-old sister could be tapped to oversee a transfer of power if the leader dies before the son is ready to take over, experts said.

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"There is a possibility that she could play the role of a coordinator to make sure the power succession goes smoothly," said Cheong Seong-chang, a senior fellow at the Sejong Institute think tank near Seoul.

She and her husband, Jang Song Thaek, who is vice chairman of the all-powerful National Defense Commission, are likely to act as guardians for the young Kim during his rise to power, analysts said.

The last such meeting 30 years ago put Kim, then aged 38, on the path to succeed his father Kim Il Sung, the state founder and now its eternal president, by taking on a Workers' Party title.

"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.

By signaling the young Kim's rise, some experts said North Korea is readying for a collective father-and-son leadership.

If 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.

The young Kim's uncle, Jang Song Thaek, was named to a powerful military post earlier this year, and analysts said he is most likely to act as principal regent until his charge has his own power base.

The question of who will take over from the authoritarian leader is important to regional security because of North Korea's active nuclear and missile programs and concerns of chaos in the case of upheaval in the impoverished country.

The two Koreas remain at war and divided by a heavily fortified border because their three-year conflict ended in a truce, not a peace treaty, in 1953.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

Video: North Korea debates future leadership

  1. Transcript of: North Korea debates future leadership

    MEREDITH VIEIRA, co-host: There is an apparent shift of power taking place in North Korea . At that country's biggest political gathering in 30 years, Kim Jong Il has now appointed his youngest son as a military general. NBC 's Ian Williams is in Seoul , South Korea , with details. Ian , good morning to you.

    IAN WILLIAMS reporting: Good morning, Meredith . Well, Kim Jong Il , North Korea 's ailing leader, has begun the process of handing control of that impoverished country to his youngest son . Appointing to a senior military position his youngest son is what's seen as this first step to power. This is thought to be the only known photograph of Kim Jong Un , taken when he was about 11. He's now about 28, though nobody knows for sure. The appointment of Kim Jong Il 's youngest son , initially as a four- star general , was announced ahead of a workers party meeting in Pyongyang today, the biggest in more than 30 years. Few here, let alone outside the country, know anything about the man slated to take this nuclear-armed communist dynasty into a third generation.

    Unidentified Man: We just don't know what he looks like, what his personality is like. He does have two older brothers, but I -- you know, the rumor has it that he, Kim Jong Un , is the one who is most like his father, which probably is not a very good news for the -- for the world.

    WILLIAMS: His father, known in the north as the " Dear Leader ," is thought to be in poor health after two strokes and may not have much longer to live. In Seoul , the capital of South Korea , today, the news came as no surprise to defectors, whose broadcasts are one of the few sources of outside information to the impoverished north. 'Like father, like son,' said Jang Hyun Cho , who fled 10 years ago. Another defector, who didn't want his face shown because he still has family in the north, said he expects the repression to get worse as the young Kim builds his power. It's always taken a lot of guesswork trying to figure out precisely what's going on in North Korea , which is just across the river from here. Uncertainty over the health of Kim Jong Il has already led to arising tensions along this, the world's most fortified border. In March, the north was blamed for the torpedoing of a South Korean patrol boat. And there's continued international anxiety over the north's nuclear weapons and missile programs. Its economy remains in dire straits, made worse by recent flooding. Analysts warn that the young and almost totally inexperienced Kim might face opposition from factions in the army, especially if his father dies before he can build a power base. For that reason, a takeover by the junior Kim may not be a done deal, and we could see some further instability in this dangerous region, Meredith .

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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