North Korea's leader makes son a general amid succession speculations

North Korean leader Kim Jong-il has promoted his youngest son Kim Jong-un to the rank of general in what's seen as the first step of a power transition.

It came before the country's ruling Workers' Party gathered for its biggest convention in decades.

No official announcements were made concerning the move and it has been shrouded in mystery.

There are rumors of imminent change – but, according to those in the know, they are premature.

“I think we shouldn't expect any dramatic changes right away, because power in North Korea is built on succession and continuity principles,” Aleksandr Zhebin, Director of Korean Studies Center of the Far East Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences. “Kim Jong-Il became a leader first and foremost thanks to his image of a true follower of his father's legacy and ideas – not as some destroyer of the foundations or the person to lead the country's policy into a sharp turn. So obviously the same is going to apply to Kim Jong-Il's successor.”

North Korea's nuclear ambitions troubled the West and the secretive state's tight-lipped policy on everything has been successfully used as a tool by countries such as the United States.

“The United States, in particular, need a ‘bad guy’ in that region to justify their military presence in the southern part of the Korean Peninsula and Japan, and deploying their missile defence systems there. That’s something that has been done there somewhat more actively than in Europe,” Zhebin explained, adding, “Indeed, until now, the US and allied military presence in the region was justified by the Soviet threat. It has been 20 years now of no Soviet threat. However, the US is not going to give up their military alliances established during the Cold War. Now it is very convenient to have a bad guy in Pyongyang that can be used as a scapegoat for everything.”

To North Korea, the Soviet Union was the very opposite of a threat – especially in the Korean War of the early 1950s. The USSR, keen to see as many socialist states emerge as possible, was happy to aid its fellow Communist regime against UN troops. However, the veterans of those battles only recently got the chance to talk about their memories. For them, it was yet another war that didn't exist.

“I was there for a year and a half,” recalled Eduard Adamchevsky, a fighter pilot who fought in the Korean War. “And when we came back, we couldn't talk about it. Couldn't even hint. Those that died were buried and the notes to their families would read ‘killed in the course of duty’. Where, when, how – that was not open for discussion. It was hard – but it was tougher there, of course. Seventy-seven out of seventy-eight Korean cities were destroyed almost completely. And yet everywhere I went I saw people trying to rebuild homes, roads, everything. We would see women on a road, carrying their kids, their belongings to a new town, and we would give them lifts. We weren't allowed to, but we did.”

When the eastern European communist bloc fell apart, its influx into the North Korean economy plummeted. Despite the fact a close relationship is maintained by Moscow and Pyongyang, the veil of secrecy is not helping to boost economic development.

Not many are allowed there, but RT’s Aleksey Yaroshevsky visited the place and shared his impressions.

“The one thing which impressed me the most on the very first hours at Pyongyang – I saw a building on the other side of a road from my hotel that had no curtains on the windows and I asked one of our assistants why is it like that,” Yaroshevsky recalled. “He said – well, if you have curtains in North Korea it means you have something to hide. So I got the impression that this society is open to its own government, whilst its government is closed to the rest of the world. It means the society is closed to the rest of the world as well.”

Victor Hsu, a professor at the KDI School of Public Policy and Management, thinks North Korea's isolation has skewed world opinion.

“To say that North Korea is the enemy of the international community is not fair. North Korea has been isolated for over half a century and during this time there have been few visitors to that country,” Hsu pointed out. “The country is definitely poor; there is malnutrition, especially among the children.”

“It has chosen its own path of socialism. The country does not worry about what outsiders think, despite all the strong pressure being exerted on it.”

Watch the full interview with Victor Hsu

According to North Korea expert Glyn Ford, along with a new leader the country may also see a shift in its foreign policy.

Watch the full interview with Glyn Ford

It is hard to believe, but North Koreans want improved relations with the United States and the rest of the world, said security expert Jim Walsh, one of the few Americans who has been to the country to discuss nuclear issues.

“In North Korea, the danger is not that North Korea is going to turn around and attack a country with nuclear weapons,” he said. “It has a nuclear device, but really does not have a working nuclear weapon and it is not interested in that to begin with.”

“Ironically – and it is hard as it is to believe – what the North Koreans really want is a good relationship with the United States, a normalized relationship, and relationships with the greater world because they are having economic problems and they would like to grow out of those, and they are trying to use their nuclear weapon as bargaining leverage in trying to come to some sort of accommodation,” Walsh added.

Watch the full interview with Jim Walsh