Asia-Pacific

North Korean leader Kim Jong-il's son 'made a general'

North Korean leader Kim Jong-il's youngest son, Kim Jong-un, has been appointed a general, amid rumours he is being anointed as successor.

State television said the elder Kim had been re-elected as leader, at the start of a meeting of the ruling party.

The Workers' Party has not met for decades and observers believe Kim Jong-il may be cementing the family dynasty.

The succession is being closely watched because of the North's nuclear programme and hostility with the South.

Lack of experience

The announcement about Kim Jong-un is his first mention by name in state media and is reminiscent of his father's rise to prominence which began in the mid-1970s.

Little is known of him other than that he was educated in Switzerland and is around 27 years of age.

He is being elevated to the post of four-star general without military experience and despite being Kim Jong-il's third and youngest son.

His elder brother and half-brother appear to have been ruled out of the running for the succession.

The state television announcer was quoted as saying that his father had been reappointed as general secretary of the Workers' Party as an "expression of absolute support and trust".

She said a "crucial" development was under way but gave no further details.

The state news agency said the leader had been re-appointed with "the unanimous will and wishes" of North Koreans.

The statement described Kim Jong-il's "immortal exploits" and said they would "shine long in the history of the country" as he developed the ruling party of his late father, Kim Il Sung.

Kim Jong-il's sister, Kyong-hui, has also been named a four-star general, announced the state-run Korean Central News Agency. Kyong-hui is married to Chang Song-taek, seen by some analysts as North Korea's second-most powerful leader.

A long-time aide to the Kim family, Choe Ryong-Hae, was also appointed a general.

Ill health

Kim Jong-il, 68, is reported to be suffering from several illnesses. He is believed to have had a stroke two years ago, and has travelled to China for treatment.

Neither Pyongyang nor Beijing have publicly commented on rumours surrounding his health.

A US official said it was too soon to tell what was happening inside North Korea's leadership, but the United States was watching developments "carefully".

Reports from South Korea on Monday suggested that the military had nominated Kim Jong-un as a delegate for the conference.

The Chosun Ilbo newspaper quoted an unnamed North Korean source as saying a propaganda campaign had already begun to raise Kim Jong-un's profile.

Rumours emerged last year from the secretive state that he was his father's chosen successor.

Analysts say taking over his father's job would be a huge task for someone with so little experience.

'Eternal president'

Images released by the North's state media on Monday showed orderly lines of delegates - some wearing suits, others in military uniform - arriving in Pyongyang.

The Associated Press reported that the capital was decorated with flags and placards announcing the meeting.

One poster read: "Warm congratulations to the representatives meeting of the Workers Party of Korea."

KCNA reported that party delegates visited the Kumsusan Memorial Palace in Pyongyang on Monday to pay respects to North Korean founder Kim Il-sung, father of Kim Jong-il.

Kim Il-sung is known as the "eternal president", while Kim Jong-il has styled himself the "dear leader".

Kim Jong-il became leader when his father died in 1994.

Under Kim Jong-il, the country's isolation from the outside world has become entrenched.

Mr Kim has built up a personality cult around his family, while North Korea's economy has all but ceased to function and its people suffer from frequent food shortages.