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."
updated 9/28/2010 9:28:11 PM ET 2010-09-29T01:28:11

The youngest son of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il was elected to his first prominent posts in the ruling Workers' Party, state media has reported, putting him well on the path to succeed his father as leader of the nuclear-armed nation.

The announcement Wednesday of Kim Jong Un's ascension to the party's Central Committee and military commission came a day after news that Kim Jong Il had made him a four-star general — a major promotion that appeared to set into motion a plan to eventually put the little-known, Swiss-schooled 20-something at the helm of the communist country.

Kim Jong Il has led the nation with absolute authority since taking over in 1994 upon the death of his father, North Korea founder Kim Il Sung, in the communist world's first father-to-son transfer of power.

Speculation has been brewing about another dynastic succession since the 68-year-old reportedly suffered a stroke in August 2008. There are concerns that his sudden death without a leadership plan in place could spark chaos in the nation of 24 million that he rules under a "military-first" policy.

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Noticeably thinner and grayer, Kim Jong Il has resumed touring factories and farms but is said to be suffering from diabetes and kidney trouble.

However, none of his sons appears ready to step into the limelight. The eldest, Jong Nam, spends much of his time outside the country and may have thwarted his chances by getting caught trying to sneak into Japan on a fake passport in the 1990s. The father thinks the middle son, Jong Chol, is too girlish, according to a 2003 memoir by a former sushi chef for the leader.

Kim Jong Un is believed to be only 27 and until this week held no known political or military positions. However, he was always his father's favorite, and the most like him in looks and ambition, the chef wrote in "I Was Kim Jong Il's Cook" under the pen name Kenji Fujimoto.

Story: Heir apparent? N. Korea leader promotes son

The son has been kept well under wraps since childhood, and the mere mention of Kim Jong Un's name in state media caused ripples among North Korea watchers looking for confirmation that Kim Jong Il had anointed the young man as his successor.

"It's clearly the biggest news we've had from North Korea since the death of Kim Il Sung," said Peter Beck, a Council on Foreign Relations-Hitachi research fellow at Keio University in Tokyo.

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The secrecy is reminiscent of Kim Jong Il's own ascent in the 1970s, when his status as the nation's future leader was confirmed in an appearance at the last major Workers' Party gathering: a party congress in 1980.

However, L. Gordon Flake, executive director at the Mansfield Foundation, said speculation about power hand-offs in the North is premature.

"There is no succession as long as Kim Jong Il is alive," Flake said. "What we are witnessing here is the early indication of the beginning steps of the process of succession. ... Kim Jong Il is still in power."

But, he said, it is clear that Kim Jong Un is being thrust into positions of power earlier than Kim Jong Il was. "Clearly, the process is being rushed," he said, adding: "It's a pretty big jump up to a four-star general in a day."

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Kim Jong Un was named a vice chairman of the party's Central Military Commission, which formulates the party's military policies, directs the country's 1.2 million-member army and oversees military projects, according to South Korea's Unification Ministry.

He also won a spot on the party's Central Committee, the official Korean Central News Agency said in a dispatch from Pyongyang. The Central Committee oversees the powerful Political Bureau and Secretariat, and functions as the party's top decision-making body when national congresses are not convened.

Kim Jong Il was named to the committee in 1972, two years before he was tapped as the country's next ruler, the Unification Ministry said.

Kim also appeared to be tightening the circle of power around the Kim family by elevating his sister and her husband.

Sister Kim Kyong Hui, 64, retained her position as a department director on the Central Committee and gained a new post as a member of the Central Committee's Political Bureau.

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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 analyst Cheong Seong-chang, of the Sejong Institute think tank.

Her husband, Jang Song Thaek, built on his nomination in June to the No. 2 position on the National Defense Commission with three posts: alternate member of the Political Bureau, department director for the Central Committee and a spot on the military commission, according to KCNA.

Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell, the top U.S. diplomat for East Asia, said the U.S. is monitoring events and looking for details, "just like just about everyone else."

Campbell suggested the U.S. wouldn't jump to conclusions about events in Pyongyang.

"It is interesting and cautionary to see how wrong we've been in the past," he said at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank in Washington.

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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