BEIJING // North Korea told its people to take a day off to celebrate the birthday of the leader Kim Jong Il's youngest son on Friday, a move widely seen as another step towards solidifying a family succession of power, South Korean media outlets with sources inside the secretive country reported.
The Open Radio for North Korea, a website and broadcaster in Seoul, said the birthday of Kim Jong Un, who turned 27 on Friday, was designated a national holiday. On the same day, Daily NK, a South Korean media outlet whose reporters include North Korean defectors, also said the North declared a national holiday on January 8 to honour Mr Kim's birthday. Yesterday, South Korea's major newspaper, Donga Ilbo, cited a source inside North Korea as saying: "People were told to take a day off on the 8th without being given an explanation. But most people knew it's because of Jong Un's birthday."
South Korea's ministry of unification, the country's main arm to deal with North Korean affairs, said it could not confirm the reports. North Korea watchers had been looking out for signs that national celebrations might be underway for the birthday of Mr Kim, the widely regarded heir designate. In South Korea, where about 20,000 North Korean defectors reside, their network with North Koreans inside the secretive country sometimes brings news faster than the intelligence community.
Analysts said the reports that Mr Kim's birthday had been officially celebrated - and that this was a step towards succession - were believable. "I think there is a certain level of credibility into those reports," said Yoo Ho-yeol, a North Korea specialist at Korea University in Seoul. "I am not sure whether the holiday was enforced on a national level or on a cadre level. Anyway, it's a way of laying down the ground work to create an environment conducive for the succession."
Others, however, were sceptical. Lee Gee-dong, a specialist in North Korea's power hierarchy, said in order for Pyongyang to have officially celebrated Mr Kim's birthday, it would mean that the "core ruling elite" of the ruling Worker's Party would had to have already pledged their allegiance to him. "I don't think it is at that stage now. We have yet to see the plenum. Besides, Jong Un doesn't have a confirmed official status within the Worker's Party," said Mr Lee, a senior fellow at South Korea's Institute for National Security Strategy, a government-run think tank.
Lu Chao, a Chinese expert on North Korea at the Liaoning Academy of Social Sciences, located near the China-North Korea border, said: "I have yet to confirm [the celebration] as a fact. The matter doesn't seem to be very urgent for North Korea, contrary to what were reported by some media outlets. "Everyone knows that [succession] is coming. But it's still at the initial stage." Succession speculation has intensified since Kim Jong Il, 67, suffered a stroke in August 2008. The leader's apparent recovery is also a factor why North Korea is not in a hurry for the succession process, which it fears would undermine the current leader, Mr Lu said.
In general, however, analysts believe that North Korea has more or less completed the "top-down" task of promoting Kim Jong Un as his father's heir among the power elite and inside the government bureaucratic system. This year, they say, it will focus on the "bottom-top" propaganda campaign to give the appearance that Kim Jong Un is "approved" by people. In North Korea, officially, the leader is not appointed by a political consultative process, but rather is "approved" by the people, to give the appearance that the country is a "people's republic". In reality, though, the leader, including the current leader, Kim Jong Il, is hand-picked by his predecessor. Mr Kim was the son of Kim Il Sung, the country's founder who is still revered as the "Great Leader". He died in 1994.
According to yesterday's report in the South Korean Donga Ilbo, citing a source inside North Korea, officers in the North were told to celebrate January 8 as one of the biggest national holidays with "a voluntary spirit of supporting General Jong Un". While Kim Jong Un's designation as heir has long been predicted by southern intelligence reports and testimonials from northern defectors, undisputed evidence first surfaced in September when a Taiwanese photographer, Huang Hanming, posted on picture-sharing website Flickr.com a photo of a propaganda poster, which he took during his trip to the country, praising the "young general comrade Kim Jong Un", illustrating how North Koreans were encouraged to recognise Mr Kim as the legitimate heir. It was the first confirmed case of official propaganda including Kim Jong Un's name.
In an apparent show of solidarity, North Korea and China in the past have sent its new leaders to the other side for "approval". When Xi Jinping was promoted to vice president of China in 2008, in an apparent sign that he would become the next Chinese president in 2012, the first country Mr Xi visited in an official capacity was North Korea. The two allies, however, also have their differences. China quietly yet firmly protested when Kim Il Sung picked his own son as heir, going against "socialist" country principles, though in the end China relented.
Mr Lu said China will endorse a new North Korean leader even though it will mean three generations of family succession, unprecedented in socialist countries. "The heir issue is completely internal affairs of North Korea. North Korea thinks that having a son as the next leader is a better way of safeguarding the social stability and development," Mr Lu said. "China will of course respect North Korea's decisions."