What Does Kim Jong-un's New Military Rank Mean?

      September 29, 2010 12:22

      North Korea watchers say the promotion to four-star Army generals of leader Kim Jong-il's son and heir Jong-un and sister Kyong-hui is a political move and has no direct significance for the military.

      Kim Young-soo, a political science professor at Sogang University, said the North's "Songun" or "military-first" ideology means a military title is a prerequisite for any kind of leadership rank. A Unification Ministry official agreed, saying, "It was a political move before appointing them to the central military committee at the Workers Party or the National Defense Commission."

      North Korean soldiers attend festivities to congratulate North Korean leader Kim Jong-il on his re-election as general secretary of the Workers' Party in Pyongyang on Wednesday. /KCNA-Reuters

      Unlike South Korea, where the rank of general is the highest, North Korea has higher ranks such as vice marshal and marshal. There are two marshals -- Kim Jong-il as marshal of the regime and Ri Ul-sol as marshal of the People's Army -- and 10 vice marshals including Ri Yong-ho, chief of the Army general staff who was promoted to the post as part of Tuesday's nomination, Jo Myong-rok, chief of the Army General Political Department, and People's Armed Forces Minister Kim Yong-chun.

      In principle the rank of supreme marshal also exists, but no one has been promoted to it since Kim Il-sung died.

      That begs the question whether the rank of general is enough for Kim Jong-un to succeed his father and lead North Korea. But Prof. Kim said, "Officials given the rank of general for political reasons do not lead military units, so the title isn't all that significant." And South Korean intelligence sources said while Kim Kyong-hui may not be promoted beyond general, Kim Jong-un could still be elevated to higher ranks.

      A senior North Korean defector said, "In North Korea, where Kim Jong-il has absolute power, it would be nothing to make Jong-un vice marshal or marshal, but the regime may have been concerned about criticism it could face when giving him such a high rank given his young age and lack of experience."

      Others suspect Kim Jong-il may have been against giving his son the same military rank as himself. Former North Korean leader Kim Il-sung, who became marshal in 1953, allowed his son Kim Jong-il to become marshal after he promoted himself to supreme marshal in 1992.

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