The Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) is showing clear signs that it is likely to confirm a successor to its 68-year-old leader, Kim Jong-il, before long. Mr. Kim's son Kim Jong-un was appointed a four-star general in the days leading up to the first major meeting of the ruling Workers' Party of Korea (WPK) since 1980. Then, on the day of the meeting, September 28, the younger Kim was named vice-chairman of the party's central military commission. The meeting was not a full party conference but was convened to elect the supreme leadership board. North Korea, in fact, has no president. The enigmatic Kim Jong-il, who prefers to be known as ‘Dear Leader,' left the presidency vacant after the death of his father, President Kim Il-Sung, in 1994; and, in 1998, had the post abolished by means of a constitutional amendment. The Dear Leader himself became party general secretary and chairman of the National Defence Commission (NDC) in 1997.
Kim Jong-il is reported to have suffered a stroke in 2008; analysts note that he made no public appearances for several months until some time into 2009, and he was said to look frail during recent visits to China. The political and economic issues facing the DPRK are problematic, to put it mildly. Kim Jong-un, who was educated in Switzerland, is thought to be about 27, but has been groomed for high office; he accompanied his father on an official visit to China in August and has been appointed to the NDC. His youth and inexperience, however, mean that a mentor will almost certainly be named. The probable mentor is Jang Song Thaek, 64, the Dear Leader's brother-in-law, vice-chairman of the NDC, and a former head of internal security. His experience could be valuable in a de facto power vacuum following a succession, and he may deal with foreign affairs while the young Kim initially takes internal responsibilities. Mr. Jang is said to regard China favourably, but domestic economic policy is unlikely to be adapted to follow the Chinese pattern. Foreign policy will continue to be challenging. North Korea has in South Korea a U.S.-backed, and often hostile, southern neighbour; relations between the two Koreas worsened following the sinking of a South Korean warship in the Yellow Sea in March. Imminent U.S.-South Korean anti-submarine exercises will not help. The nuclear issue remains on the agenda. Kim Jong-il, who has stood up to U.S threats and pressures especially on this issue, may not disappear any time soon — and Pyongyang's secretiveness and extreme caution over changes in policy laid down at the time of Kim Il-Sung are likely to continue.