The future remains uncertain for North Korea and its Christians following Kim Jong-Il's appointment of his son, Kim Jong-Eun, to the rank of four-star general on Monday and as vice chairman of the Workers Party of Korea's central military commission on Tuesday.

The appointments place the 27-year-old, with no prior military or leadership experience, on what is believed to be the path to be his father's successor.

The rapid succession of Jong-Il's youngest son is expected to continue the dynasty that began with the reign of Jong-Il's father, Kim Il-Sung, who ruled for nearly 50 years. Jong-Il took over when his father died of a heart attack in 1994.

Observers remain skeptical about any change the appointment of Jong-Il's heir apparent can bring to a county notorious for human rights violations.

“Surely, a person with Western education cannot be as evil and non-caring as Kim Jong-Il,” said Sam Kim, executive director of the Korean Church Coalition for North Korea Freedom. “[Yet] Kim Jong-Eun has not earned the true respect from North Korea’s communist party leaders to effectively govern North Korea. As such, he will be nothing more than a figurehead and his uncle, Chan Sung Taek, will be the person who is really in control.

“Unfortunately, Chan Sung Taek is just as ruthless as Kim Jong-Il,” he said. “As such, Christians can expect to face the same level of persecution.”

North Korea holds an estimated 150,000 to 200,000 prisoners for political and religious reasons, according to the U.S. State Department's 2009 report on international religious freedom. An estimated 40,000 are religious prisoners treated worse than other inmates, according to the 2010 annual report of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

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