Analysts: Kim's son a successor
Seoul - North Korea launched its biggest political meeting in 30 years on Tuesday after promoting the youngest son of ailing leader Kim Jong-Il in apparent preparation for another dynastic succession.
Kim appointed Jong-Un as a four-star general, official media reported on Tuesday in its first ever mention of the third son's name.
Analysts said the promotion makes it virtually certain the Swiss-educated Jong-Un, believed aged about 27, will one day step into his father's shoes as ruler of the impoverished but nuclear-armed nation.
But there was no mention of Jong-Un after the ruling communist party conference got under way in the showpiece capital Pyongyang. Reports focused on his 68-year-old father.
Kim Jong-Il was re-elected general secretary of the Workers' Party "amid a storm of applause", said state television.
"His re-election is an expression of absolute support and trust of all the party members, the servicepersons and the people," the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said.
Other four-star generals
The conference took place "at a historic time when a signal turn is being effected in... the cause of building a thriving socialist nation", it said without elaborating.
Also appointed four-star generals were the leader's sister Kim Kyong-Hui and Choe Ryong-Hae, a long-time aide to the Kim dynasty, which has ruled with an iron fist since the country was founded in 1948.
"Long live the revolutionary ideology of the great leader, comrade Kim Il-Sung!" read one banner in the city, in reference to the founding leader who died in 1994 but has been declared president for eternity.
At the last major Workers' Party meeting in 1980, Kim Jong-Il was confirmed as eventual successor to his father Kim Il-Sung, so Tuesday's gathering was closely watched.
Kim reportedly has kidney problems and had a stroke two years ago, making a succession process more urgent.
Japan said the appointment of Jong-Un as four-star general signalled that a generational change was coming.
Assertion of intentions
"There is no doubt that giving four-star general status shows a clear assertion of intentions," said Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara.
Kim Kyong-Hui, 64, is married to Jang Song-Thaek, widely seen as the nation's second most powerful man. They are thought likely to act as guardians for the young and inexperienced son if the leader dies.
"Kim Jong-Un's promotion (to general) means he is definitely going to be the successor," said Yang Moo-Jin of Seoul's University of North Korean Studies.
The party conference will serve as a stage to announce his official status as successor, Yang said.
"There could be some strife within the ruling elite but a military coup or any other major upheaval is hardly likely because the elite think they and the Kims are in the same boat," Yang said.
Paik Hak-Soon of South Korea's Sejong Institute think-tank said the speed of the succession process "apparently signals that Kim Jong-Il's health is failing fast. Otherwise he would have never promoted the son so quickly, worrying he himself would become a lame duck."
Daily NK, a Seoul-based website, said the conference would last just one day due to Kim's shaky health.
"Chairman Kim will take part in the morning session only," it quoted a source as saying.
"Instead of putting the son on wide public view, Chairman Kim has apparently decided to give him more time to prepare himself, while granting him considerable power within the party."
The head of an anti-Pyongyang group that broadcasts into the North said Jong-Un's appointment as general affirms his status as next leader.
But Ha Tae-Kyung, president of Open Radio for North Korea, said the young protégé’s rise to power will face "considerable resistance" from senior officials who fear they will soon be replaced by younger Jong-Un loyalists.
By early evening there was no news on whether the conference was over.
Instead, KCNA reported an artistic performance to congratulate leader Kim on his re-election, featuring such choruses as "Glory to General Kim Jong Il".