(Updates with background on Kim Jong Un from seventh paragraph. See EXT2 <GO> for more on North Korea.)
Dec. 24 (Bloomberg) -- North Korean state media began addressing Kim Jong Un by the “Supreme Commander” title held by his late father, signaling the communist regime’s new leader is tightening his control over the nation’s military.
“We vow with bleeding tears to call Kim Jong Un our supreme commander, our leader,” the North’s Rodong newspaper of the Workers’ Party of Korea said in an editorial.
Becoming “Supreme Commander” would elevate Kim’s stature as the totalitarian state undergoes a leadership transition in the wake of this week’s announcement that Kim Jong Il died. Analysts are split whether the younger Kim, who’s thought to be in his late 20s, will assume immediate control of the world’s fourth-largest army or initially cede powers to older statesmen.
“This means North Korea is announcing to the world that Kim Jong Un has full control of the army,” said Kim Yong Hyun, a professor of North Korea studies at Dongguk University in Seoul. “The next step would be to promote Kim Jong Un as head of the National Defense Commission and general secretary of the Workers’ Party, but this will take longer as North Korea is currently in a mourning period.”
Today is the 20th anniversary of Kim Jong Il’s ascension to “Supreme Commander,” according to the official Korea Central News Agency. The late Kim was also head of the National Defense Committee and general secretary of the Workers’ Party of Korea.
His son, believed to be 28 or 29, was first mentioned in official KCNA dispatches in September 2010, in an announcement of his appointments as a four-star general and vice chairman of the party’s Central Military Commission.
Kim Jong Un was hailed by the KCNA as the “Great Successor” since this week. He quickly began asserting his control over the military, ordering units to return to base before the official Dec. 19 announcement of his father’s death, South Korea’s Yonhap reported Dec. 21, citing an unidentified government official.
The younger Kim, who studied in Switzerland in the 1990s, inherits an economy where more than 20 million people suffer from chronic malnutrition and are taught to believe the country is in a constant struggle with South Korea, the U.S. and Japan after the 1950-53 Korean War ended without a peace treaty.
When Kim Jong Il handed official posts to his son last year, he also elevated allies to act as guardians, including sister Kim Kyong Hui and brother-in-law Jang Song Thaek. Not everyone expects the younger Kim to assert immediate control.
“The younger Kim has very little political experience to run what is one of the world’s most troubled countries,” Business Monitor International wrote Dec. 19. “We therefore see a high possibility that he will be a mere figurehead, with real power wielded by the military.”
Some investors are optimistic.
“In some ways, the break from the past could be a good signal so I’m more optimistic than pessimistic,” Mark Mobius, executive chairman of Templeton Emerging Markets Group, said in a Bloomberg Television interview yesterday. “I think the transition is going to be rather smooth.”
South Korea’s benchmark Kospi stock index took two days to recover from its 3.4 percent drop on Dec. 19, when North Korea first announced Kim’s death.
South Koreans may also be optimistic. The North will probably become more open to reforms under its new leader than when Kim Jong Il was in power, according to almost half of respondents to a Gallup Korea poll this week.
Officials from South Korea, China, the U.S., Japan and Russia are assessing the impact of the leadership change in the regime following Kim’s death. Talks between the five countries and North Korea have stalled since December 2008 after the government in Pyongyang refused to allow inspectors to take samples from a nuclear reactor.
South Korean and Chinese officials may discuss North Korean issues next week in Seoul, Yonhap News reported yesterday, citing a South Korean government official it didn’t identify. Vice Foreign Minister Park Suk Hwan will probably lead the South Korean side, it said.
Tensions on the peninsula have risen since North Korean attacks last year on a warship and a disputed island. The Obama administration, which along with the United Nations increased sanctions after the incidents, resumed direct talks with North Korea in October on dismantling its nuclear program, including work on a light-water atomic reactor that the KCNA said on Nov. 30 was “progressing apace.”
North Korea is estimated to have 1.2 million troops and another 7.7 million in reserve, according South Korea’s 2010 Defense White Paper. It also has 70 submarines, including an undetermined number of Yeono-class midget subs, compared with South Korea’s 10.
--With assistance from Kyunghee Park in Singapore. Editors: Young-Sam Cho, Anand Krishnamoorthy
To contact the reporter on this story: Jiyeun Lee in Seoul at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jim McDonald at email@example.com