North Korea bestows new title on its young leader ahead of rocket launch

In a move designed to shore up his standing, Kim Jong-un received the title of 'first secretary' ahead of the centennial of his grandfather's birth and an anticipated rocket launch.

Ng Han Guan/AP
On Monday, North Koreans walk near new posters commemorate the upcoming Fourth Workers' Party Conference to be held in Pyongyang. Workers' Party delegates are scheduled to convene Wednesday, for the fourth conference of North Korea's ruling political party, where new leader Kim Jong-un received the title of 'first secretary.'
David Guttenfelder/AP
In February, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un waves at Kumsusan Memorial Palace in Pyongyang, North Korea, after reviewing a parade of thousands of soldiers, commemorating the 70th birthday of the late Kim Jong-il.

North Korea’s youthful “supreme leader” got another formal title Wednesday to show he’s really in charge before the North test-fires a long-range missile in the face of strong warnings from the US.

Even as engineers were fueling the missile on its launch pad, North Korea’s Workers’ Party named him “first secretary” – a new position created in deference to the memory of his late father, Kim Jong-il, who had had the title of general secretary when he died last December.

Rather than give the same title to Kim Jong-un, still in his late 20s, Pyongyang’s Korea Central News Agency said Kim Jong-il would remain “eternal general secretary.” The title was logical, observers note, as the North prepares for a massive celebration on Sunday marking the centennial of the birth of “Great Leader” Kim Il-sung, honored in posterity as “eternal president” after dying in 1994 and leaving power to Kim Jong-il.

“The son cannot take the father’s title,” says Bae Jong-yun, a political science professor at Yonsei University, explaining the deep Confucian respect for one’s ancestors behind the decision to honor Kim Jong-il as “eternal” general secretary. “The actual title is not so important,” Mr. Bae adds. “By naming Kim Jong-un first secretary, the party, his power, is consolidated and will give him stronger power as time passes.”

It’s still not clear if Kim Jong-un will assume his father’s title of chairman of the National Defense Commission, the center of power in North Korea, but the answer could come later this week when the rubberstamp Supreme People’s Assembly convenes.

The move to buttress Kim Jong-un with a formal title came as South Koreans went to the polls Wednesday in National Assembly elections seen as a test of the waning strength and popularity of the country’s conservative President Lee Myung-bak.

In early returns, the conservatives seemed likely to retain their grip over the assembly despite difficulties in the run-up to election in December of a successor to Mr. Lee, limited to a single five-year term under the South’s “democracy” constitution.

“They are working for the rich,” says Park Hyun-ju, a middle-aged housewife, reflecting widespread criticism of Lee’s government, especially among younger people. “They don’t have consideration for the real problems of the people. For most people, the economy is not getting better.”

Memories of the Korean War and concerns about North Korea, however, infuse the outlook of conservative older voters. “Yes, we are quite used to North Korean threats,” says Shin Yong-jin, a shopkeeper in his 60s. “We have a very strong belief that the other parties are communist or pro-communist.”

The question is how or whether North Korea’s insistence on test-firing the missile really affected the voting in South Korea. “I don’t think North Korea makes a difference,” says Park Hyun-ju, but hourly headlines and bulletins show deep interest in whatever is going on up there.

A South Korean defense official confirmed what a North Korean official had already told foreign journalists in Pyongyang: that North Korea could finish injecting fuel into the missile in four hours. The North Korean official said his “superiors” would decide when to fire the missile, which the North claims will launch a weather satellite into orbit.

Many analysts question if North Korea really has attached a satellite to the missile, which theoretically could carry a nuclear warhead as far as the US West Coast. “I don't believe they've been able to do that," says Choi Jin-wook, North Korea expert at the Korea Institute for National Unification. North Korea, he believes, does not have the technical expertise to build a satellite of its own. 

Mr. Choi forcasts that North Korea will again make a false claim to have put a satellite into orbit as it did after launches of an earlier version of the same missile in 1998 and 2009. The missile, which the North could fire as early as Thursday if the weather is clear, will fly a southeasterly course that could take it over the Japanese southern island prefecture of Okinawa on the way to the southern Pacific.

Despite strong warnings by President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton about the consequences of a missile shot, Choi predicts that the US and North Korea will eventually return to renegotiating a moratorium in exchange for food aid. The US agreed on Feb. 29 to ship 240,000 tons of food over a 12-month period but suspended the plan in view of the impending launch.

The United States, South Korea, and Japan have all indicated North Korea again will face condemnation in the UN Security Council, which imposed sanctions on the North in June 2009 after the North had tested its long-range missile and then conducted its second underground nuclear test.

After celebrating the missile launch and the centennial of Kim Il-sung’s birth, analysts wonder if North Korea will really go through with a third nuclear test.

"We cannot expect a catastrophic situation from a rocket launch," says Choi, "but if they test an underground nuclear device, that is much more serious." Amid reports from South Korea that North Korea is getting ready for a nuclear test, he says, "I don't believe they have decided to do that." 

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