North Korea's next leader

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LISA MULLINS: I'm Lisa Mullins and this is The World. North Korea is set to hold its most important political meeting in decades tomorrow. It's almost certain to address the question of who'll take over from the ailing North Korean leader, Kim Jong Il. It's been expected for some time now that Kim's successor will be his youngest son. And today, there was evidence that that might well happen. North Korea's official news agency announced that Kim's youngest son, named Kim Jong-un, has been given the rank of general. And his aunt has been named general, too. The World's East Asia correspondent Mary Kay Magistad is here in our Boston studio. Mary Kay, so North Korea is apparently gaining two new generals. Does that mean that either of those two new generals might be leading the country?

MARY KAY MAGISTAD: It may well mean that one of them will be eventually leading the country. And the other one, the aunt, may in the interim be helping him get ready for that role. It must be said, though, that neither of them have any background in the military up until this point.

MULLINS: Which means the reason they were chosen is?

MAGISTAD: Kim Jong Il wants to keep power in his family. He himself succeeded from his father Kim Il Sung and this is one way of showing look, these are the people I want to succeed me when I'm gone.

MULLINS: Okay, so this meeting that's happening tomorrow, this is the kind of thing that does not happen very often in North Korea. In fact, the last time something like this happened was 30 years ago. Flashback for us, Mary Kay, 30 years and tell us what was going on in North Korea then?

MAGISTAD: Okay. So in 1980, North Korea was obviously still a client state of the Soviet Union. It was getting most of its resources, most of its funding, from the Soviet Union. And Kim Il Sung named his son, Kim Jong Il, as his successor and the two faces were on paintings and posters and buttons that people wore on their clothing, for 14 years before the father died and the son took over.

MULLINS: And now 30 years later things are quite different. There is no more USSR. China I guess would be the closest thing to having North Korea as a client state, but it's quite a different relationship, isn't it?

MAGISTAD: Right. And also North Koreans don't know Kim Jong-un. The mention today in the Korean official news agency was the first time the son has been mentioned officially in North Korea.

MULLINS: So from here on in, do you expect to see the burnishing of his reputation, the son's reputation, among North Koreans and especially among the North Korean military?

MAGISTAD: Well, something we need to keep in mind is that Kim Jong Il has been having health problems [OVERLAPPING]

MULLINS: He's the father, the president.

MAGISTAD: Right. He looks very gaunt. He reportedly had a stroke a couple of years ago. And so what analysts who've been following North Korea closely believe is that he wants to get his son front and center and into the power hierarchy before he dies. And well before he dies. He knows he doesn't have 14 years to groom him the way he was groomed, but at least he wants to have as much time as possible.

MULLINS: And, just bringing into the picture here, the United States and China in fact, because both are looking very closely to see what goes on in North Korea. Even China is, with as much influence it has in North Korea, is not calling the shots there. What presumably would both be looking for right now after this announcement today and then after tomorrow's meeting?

MAGISTAD: Well both are looking for stability on the Korean peninsula. Neither particularly want to have a nuclear Korean peninsula and they've both been working to try to keep things as calm as possible. They definitely don't want an implosion. They don't want there to be a bloodbath and fighting for positions of power. China may well be quite okay with the idea of having a sort of a weaker, younger member of the Kim family in power because there's a certain continuity. The United States would like to have a stable North Korea that doesn't continue to act erratically and build up its nuclear problem and would, in fact, like North Korea to come back to the table and negotiate and start to dismantle that program.

MULLINS: Mary Kay, we don't want to let you go before we mention the president of North Korea's sister, who has also been given the rank of general, what do we know about her?

MAGISTAD: We know that she's about 4 years younger than him. Her name is Kim Kyong Hui and she has been the head of the North Korean Light Industry Department. We also know that Kim Jong Il's former sushi chef wrote a book that talked about her and said that she has a fiery temper and that Kim Jong Il has at one point said that even he can't control her when she gets violent.

MULLINS: And this is the person who may be in a caretaker government before Kim Jong Il's youngest son takes over?

MAGISTAD: Or at least possibly could be in a position of regent, or sort of helping to shape the younger son as he grows used to being in a position of power.

MULLINS: Thank you very much. The World's Mary Kay Magistad, our East Asia correspondent, usually in Beijing, right now in our Boston studios, talking about the official announcement that Kim Jong Il's youngest son, Kim Jong-un, has been given the rank of general and seems to be one step closer to becoming president of North Korea. Thanks, Mary Kay.

MAGISTAD: Thanks, Lisa.