SEOUL, South Korea — 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.
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.
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.