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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

North Korea's Kim Takes Helm

SEOUL, South Korea -- Moving up from "dear leader'' to "great leader,'' Kim Jong-il has taken the reins of North Korea's ruling party in a move analysts say could herald a further opening of the reclusive communist nation.

Kim's long-anticipated election as general secretary of the Workers' Party of Korea was formally announced Wednesday in a special communique by the party's Central Committee and the Central Military Commission.

It was anticlimactic, at best.

Kim, 55, has been the undisputed leader of North Korea since the death of his father, Kim Il-sung, in July 1994. Even before the elder Kim's death, he was named head of the country's 1.1 million-strong military and anointed to succeed his father as party chief and president.

He is expected to assume the presidency later this year or in 1998, completing the first dynastic transfer of power in communism's history.

In recent months, the North's media had begun referring to the younger Kim as "great leader,'' a reverential title once reserved for his father. The younger Kim had been known for years as "dear leader.''

"The whole country raised cheers,'' the North's official Korean Central News Agency reported. "Squares and parks, streets and villages throughout the country were crowded with people singing and dancing to the tune of drums and gongs.''

Chinese President Jiang Zemin sent Kim a telegram expressing "warm congratulations,'' China's state-run television said. Beijing is North Korea's last remaining major ally.

Since Kim's ascension to power had long been expected, South Koreans accepted the news calmly. South Korean President Kim Young-sam said he expects no immediate big changes in the rival North. In an official statement, his government urged Pyongyang to "open up ... and build peace with the South.''

Many analysts predicted Kim would move cautiously to open his famine-stricken, impoverished nation -- often referred to as the Hermit Kingdom -- as he consolidated power.

"The economy is his primary concern,'' said Ryoo Kihl-jae, a political science professor at Kyung-nam University's Institute for Far Eastern Studies in Seoul.

"North Korea will open more ... roughly following the trail of China,'' Ryoo said. "But I doubt North Korea will go as far as China has."

Park June-young, a political scientist at Ewha Woman's University in Seoul, agreed. "Kim will try more aggressively to establish diplomatic ties with the United States and persuade Washington to remove the economic embargo against his country,'' Park said.

North Korea already has taken a few, halting steps toward greater openness. It has created a free trade zone in its far northeastern corner, sought membership in the Asian Development Bank and the International Monetary Fund, frozen its nuclear program under a 1994 accord with the United States, entered into talks with Washington on anti-ballistic missile proliferation, and agreed, with reservations, to try to negotiate a permanent peace treaty with South Korea. Those talks would also involve China and the United States as mediators.

Just as importantly, North Korea has been forced to put aside its guiding philosophy of juche, or self-reliance, and go begging for international aid to combat a famine that has put up to 20 percent of its 22 million people at risk of starvation.

Although the inner workings of North Korea's regime are veiled in secrecy, Kim is not known to have any competition for power. In the past year, he has elevated about 120 generals in a move seen as an attempt to strengthen his control of the military, the world's fifth largest.