Kim Jong Un was named head of North Korea’s sole political party, solidifying his status ahead of a planned missile launch as soon as today that could halt a U.S. food deal and raise regional tensions.
Kim, who is believed to be younger than 30, was named first secretary of the Workers’ Party of Korea, the state-run Korean Central News Agency said yesterday. It was his first government post since becoming head of the country after the December death of his father Kim Jong Il, who was named “eternal general secretary.”
“The official power transfer process is finally taking place after months of mourning Kim Jong Il’s death,” said Koh Yu Hwan, professor of North Korean Studies at Dongguk University in Seoul.
The party meeting took place as the totalitarian state prepared to put a satellite in orbit atop a long-range rocket as soon as today, as part of celebrations marking the April 15 centennial of Kim’s grandfather, state founder Kim Il Sung. North Korea disputes U.S. contentions that the launch would break a February agreement to halt long-range missile and nuclear tests in return for American food assistance.
Kim Jong Un was also named chairman of the party’s Central Military Commission and as a member of the Presidium of the Political Bureau of the its Central Committee, KCNA said in a separate dispatch today.
A launch would violate “multiple UN Security Council resolutions,” U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said.
“We all share a strong interest in stability on the Korean Peninsula, and we will be discussing how best to achieve that,” Clinton said yesterday at the opening of a Group of 8 foreign ministers meeting in Washington.
Kim’s regime has begun fueling the rocket that will be fired sometime between today and April 16, Yonhap News cited space agency official Paek Chang Ho as telling a group of foreign journalists in the capital of Pyongyang yesterday. The launch is on schedule, Paek was quoted as saying.
A South Korean intelligence report released this week said the North appears to be preparing for a third underground nuclear weapons test to follow the rocket launch.
“Recent history suggests that additional provocations will follow,” Clinton said April 10 in an address at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.
The United Nations imposed sanctions against North Korea following atomic bomb tests in 2006 and 2009.
Should the rocket launch fail, “that is an even stronger reason for them to potentially want to do a nuclear test,” Bruce Bennett, a senior defense analyst at the Rand Corp., told reporters yesterday by phone from Seoul.
While the U.S. says a launch would violate the Feb. 29 agreement with the U.S. banning uranium-enrichment and missile- technology activities, North Korea has maintained the deal doesn’t apply to rockets sending satellites into orbit.
“The agreement seems basically to have turned out to be a fiasco,” Andrew Scobell, a political scientist with RAND, said from the Washington area on the call with reporters. Both sides now “have some egg on their face.”
U.S. officials, including Jay Carney, President Barack Obama’s spokesman, have said a launch would void the accord’s provision calling for delivery of 240,000 metric tons of food aid to North Korea.
The action would show the “propensity by the North Korean regime to spend and waste money on military programs while their own people starve,” Carney told reporters in Washington yesterday.
“This kind of blatant disregard for their commitments makes it impossible for the United States to provide the nutritional assistance that it had hoped to provide for the North Korean people,” he said.
Kim’s latest titles came the same day South Koreans went to the polls to elect a new National Assembly. President Lee Myung Bak’s ruling party retained control of parliament.
Lee’s New Frontier Party won 152 of the 300 seats in the National Assembly. The main opposition Democratic United Party secured 127 and the smaller United Progress Party took 13, the election commission said on its website.
While economic growth has slowed since Lee took office in 2008, the South Korean economy dwarfs that of its northern neighbor, with which it is technically at war since the 1950-53 conflict ended without a peace treaty.
The North’s economy contracted 0.5 percent to 30 trillion won ($26.2 billion) in 2010, compared with South Korea’s 1,173 trillion won, according to the South’s central bank. North Korea had a food shortfall of as much as 700,000 metric tons of food last year, according to the UN, and is dependent on aid from China, its only ally.
The Chinese government has expressed caution over the planned rocket launch without calling on Kim to halt it.
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