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SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — The ascension of Kim Jong Il's little-known, 20-something son to a prominent ruling party post put him well on the path Wednesday to succeed the supreme leader at the helm of nuclear-armed North Korea and carry the family dynasty into a third generation.
Kim's Swiss-educated, youngest son was made a four-star general in his first mention in North Korea's state media on Tuesday. In the early hours of Wednesday, the communist nation announced that Kim Jong Un was appointed to the Workers' Party Central Committee.
Kim Jong Il has led the nation with absolute authority since taking over in 1994 upon the death of his father, North Korea founder Kim Il Sung, in the communist world's first father-to-son transfer of power.
Many are predicting another hereditary succession since the 68-year-old reportedly suffered a stroke in August 2008. There are concerns that his sudden death without a leadership plan in place could spark chaos in the nation of 24 million that he rules under a "military-first" policy.
Noticeably thinner and grayer, Kim Jong Il has resumed touring factories and farms but is said to be suffering from diabetes and kidney trouble.
However, none of his sons appears ready to step into the limelight. The eldest, Jong Nam, spends much of his time outside the country and may have thwarted his chances by getting caught trying to sneak into Japan on a fake passport in the 1990s. The father thinks the middle son, Jong Chol, is too girlish, according to a 2003 memoir by a former sushi chef for the leader.
Kim Jong Un is believed to be only 27 and until this week held no known political or military positions. However, he was always his father's favorite, and the most like him in looks and ambition, the chef wrote in "I Was Kim Jong Il's Cook" under the pen name Kenji Fujimoto.
The son has been kept well under wraps since childhood, and the mere mention of Kim Jong Un's name in state media caused ripples among North Korea watchers looking for confirmation that Kim Jong Il had anointed the young man as his successor.
"It's clearly the biggest news we've had from North Korea since the death of Kim Il Sung," said Peter Beck, a Council on Foreign Relations-Hitachi research fellow at Keio University in Tokyo.
The secrecy is reminiscent of Kim Jong Il's own ascent in the 1970s, when his status as the nation's future leader was confirmed in an appearance at the last major Workers' Party gathering: a party congress in 1980.
However, L. Gordon Flake, executive director at the Mansfield Foundation, said speculation about power hand-offs in the North is premature.
"There is no succession as long as Kim Jong Il is alive," Flake said. "What we are witnessing here is the early indication of the beginning steps of the process of succession. ... Kim Jong Il is still in power."
But, he said, it is clear that Kim Jong Un is being thrust into positions of power earlier than Kim Jong Il was. "Clearly, the process is being rushed," he said, adding: "It's a pretty big jump up to a four-star general in a day."
Kim Jong Un was named a vice chairman of the party's Central Military Commission, which formulates the party's military policies, directs the country's 1.2 million-member army and oversees military projects, according to South Korea's Unification Ministry.
He also won a spot on the party's Central Committee, the official Korean Central News Agency said in a dispatch from Pyongyang. The Central Committee oversees the powerful Political Bureau and Secretariat, and functions as the party's top decision-making body when national congresses are not convened.
Kim Jong Il was named to the committee in 1972, two years before he was tapped as the country's next ruler, the Unification Ministry said.
Kim also appeared to be tightening the circle of power around the Kim family by elevating his sister and her husband.
Sister Kim Kyong Hui, 64, retained her position as a department director on the Central Committee and gained a new post as a member of the Central Committee's Political Bureau.
"There is a possibility that she could play the role of a coordinator to make sure the power succession goes smoothly," said analyst Cheong Seong-chang, of the Sejong Institute think tank.
Her husband, Jang Song Thaek, built on his nomination in June to the No. 2 position on the National Defense Commission with three posts: alternate member of the Political Bureau, department director for the Central Committee and a spot on the military commission, according to KCNA.
Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell, the top U.S. diplomat for East Asia, said the U.S. is monitoring events in the North and looking for details, "just like just about everyone else."
Campbell suggested the U.S. wouldn't jump to conclusions about events in Pyongyang.
"It is interesting and cautionary to see how wrong we've been in the past," he said at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank in Washington.
Chinese President Hu Jintao sent a message to Kim Jong Il congratulating him on the successful party conference. China is the North's strongest ally and watches the North closely for signs of instability, which could spill over their shared border.
The moves come at a time of tension on the Korean peninsula. Seoul and Washington blame Pyongyang for the sinking of a South Korean naval warship. The North denies responsibility.
North Korea also remains at odds with international powers over its nuclear program, and was slapped with widespread U.N. sanctions last year.
But Wednesday brought a sign of a possible easing of tensions between the North and South. The two rivals agreed to hold their first working-level military talks in two years, according to Seoul's Defense Ministry.