Center for Arms Control

by Duyeon Kim [contact information]

Kim Jong-un On the Succession Fast-Track


By Duyeon Kim


On September 27, 2010, the eve of a rare convention among the Workers Party delegates in Pyongyang, North Korean leader Kim Jong-il’s (age 68) youngest son Kim Jong-un (age 27 or 28) was promoted to four-star general of the Korea People’s Army (KPA).

Kim Jong-un’s appointment essentially makes it official that he will succeed Kim Jong-il, and it is the first time North Korea has publically mentioned Jong-un’s name. It also signifies North Korea’s resolve to continue its Songun (military-first) policy.

North Korea’s state-run Korea Central News Agency (KCNA) reported that Kim Jong-il’s younger sister Kim Kyong-hui (64) was also promoted to the position of general, which suggests the next leadership may resemble that of a somewhat “collective” one in which Kim Jong-un is closely advised by family members due to his young age and lack of experience. His aunt Kim Kyong-hui is married to Jang Song-taek (64), the National Defense Commission Vice Chairman who is widely believed will play a key role behind the scenes until Kim Jong-un can rule on his own.


The September 28th convention was the first of its kind in 44 years, and given Kim Jong-il’s ailing health, the biggest question on experts’ minds across the globe was “Will Kim Jong-un be decorated further with a ranking position in the Politburo?” Kim Jong-il debuted as his father Kim Il-sung’s successor in 1980 at such a meeting. However, there was no immediate word as to whether Kim Jong-un received a political seat.

Kim Jong-il was also reelected as the general secretary of the Workers’ Party, according to a KCNA report on September 28th. This seems to be a clear sign that the Dear Leader is still in charge and that the reins of power have not been handed over just yet.


What does Kim Jong-un’s promotion as general mean for North Korea, the region, and North Korea’s relations with the West? It is always risky to make definitive conclusions about the communist regime due to limited information. Most speculative analyses are confirmed years later. Still, below are some initial thoughts based on observations of North Korean behavior over the years:

Internal power structure? The latest military promotions suggest that the ailing Kim Jong-il is relying on his blood ties to protect his power and continue the Kim dynasty. In other words, if Kim Jong-un succeeds his father, North Korea will likely be run by a quasi “collective” leadership mentioned above.

The promotions also suggest that the communist party may be given more power in military and state affairs after having been overshadowed by the military for years. Kim Jong-il’s sister Kim Kyong-hui, who is head of the Workers’ Party’s Light Industry Department, has no military background. But her new title as general could give her leverage with the military to either balance her husband or solidify the succession process should Kim Jong-il suddenly fall.

Inter-Korean relations? It seems unlikely that the military promotions will have any immediate effects on cross-border relations since there has not yet been a transfer of power. Kim Jong-un's promotion as a four-star general simply confirms rumors that he is the heir apparent being groomed to succeed Kim Jong-il. It will take time before Jong-un can exert his own power and influence.

U.S.-North Korea Relations? It seems unlikely that the U.S. would shift its North Korea policy as a result of the North’s military promotions for the same reasons mentioned above and given that the North is unlikely to alter its policy toward the U.S.

The Six-Party Nuclear Talks? A direct correlation does not seem to exist between Kim Jong-un’s promotion and the future of the Six-Party Talks. Instead, an important development to keep an eye on is the recent promotions of three key North Korean diplomats on U.S. policy to senior posts. These promotions appear to be Pyongyang's way of strengthening its foreign policy and signaling its desire to continue engagement. However, considering its track record, North Korea may be trying to elicit a type of negotiations different from the Six-Party Talks. For example, after bilateral U.S.-North Korea talks led to the 1994 Geneva Agreement, Pyongyang replaced then-chief negotiator Kang Sok-ju with Kim Kye-gwan. Kye-gwan represented the North at the Six-Party Talks since its inception in 2003. Now that Kye-gwan has been replaced as Vice Foreign Minister by Ri Yong-ho, perhaps North Korea yet again seeks a new direction, although it is unclear whether Ri is the new chief negotiator.

Another key factor is whether and how Pyongyang will exhibit some sort of gesture that acknowledges its involvement in the sinking of the South Korean ship Cheonan. Seoul and Washington have agreed that a resumption of multilateral nuclear dialogue is contingent upon progress in inter-Korean relations.

Variables? The biggest variable in the succession equation is Kim Jong-il’s health. It is unclear whether his sister and brother-in-law will continue to pledge their loyalty and allegiance to their nephew Kim Jong-un after the Dear Leader’s death or if a power struggle will emerge among both family members and other elites.


The following is what is believed to be known about Kim Jong-un:

Birth: January 8, 1982 or 1983 in Pyongyang

Height: estimated 168 cm (5’5”)

Weight: estimated 87 kg (192 lbs)


  • 1997~Fall 2000 Hessgut Schule in Liebefeld, Switzerland.
  • 2002~April 2007 Kim Il Sung Military University in Pyongyang.


  • September 27, 2010 Korea People’s Army General.


  • Believed to be the most-loved son of Kim Jong-il.
  • Believed to have strong leadership skills, political ambitions and strong competitive edge.
  • Believed to be a carbon copy of Kim Jong-il’s personality and body shape.
  • Known for his strong belief in Songun (military-first) policy.
  • Believed to have masterminded the March 2010 Cheonan attack and July 2009 cyber attacks on South Korea’s government and personal websites.

* The information in this article is from the author’s personal research.


Duyeon Kim 202-546-0795

Duyeon Kim is a Senior Non-Proliferation Fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation where her policy work focuses on North Korea, nuclear non-proliferation, nuclear security and nuclear terrorism prevention. Kim has published in major publications including the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and World Politics Review. Prior to joining the Center, Kim was a career Diplomatic and Security Journalist in Seoul.

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