N. Korea may formalize power transfer from Kim Jong Il to son, analysts say

By Chico Harlan and John Pomfret
Sunday, June 27, 2010

TOKYO -- North Korea announced Saturday that it would hold a rare meeting that analysts predicted would herald the rise of Kim Jong Un, a son of ruler Kim Jong Il, as the new leader of the isolated Stalinist dictatorship.

Official state news media reported that delegates from the ruling Korean Workers' Party would meet in September to select a new party leadership. Analysts said the gathering had all the hallmarks of a similar meeting in 1980 when Kim Jong Il was elevated to the Politburo to replace his father, Kim Il Sung.

The planned handoff of power, a topic of speculation since Kim Jong Il, 68, suffered an apparent stroke in August 2008, comes as nuclear-armed North Korea must deal with a crumbling economy, famine and the international response to its recent deadly sinking of a South Korean warship.

Tensions have skyrocketed in the region since a North Korean mini-submarine fired a torpedo into the Cheonan on March 26, killing 46 sailors.

In view of those tensions, President Obama announced Saturday that he was moving to bolster the United States' already-close alliance with Seoul by taking the politically risky step of asking Congress to pass a free-trade agreement with South Korea. Obama also said he was delaying the transfer of command of the allied military from U.S. forces to South Korean forces from 2012 to 2015 "because this alliance is the lynchpin of not only security for the Republic of Korea and the United States but also for the Pacific as a whole."

"This should be read as an indication of things working well between Washington and Seoul," said L. Gordon Flake, executive director of the Mansfield Foundation. "You'd be hard-pressed to find any country in the world that's closer [with the United States] right now. You have the United States and South Korea working so closely together on a response to the global economic crisis, the very real threat from North Korea. So that's what this is -- a request from the Lee Myung-bak administration that the U.S. is accommodating."

Speaking after a meeting with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak on the sidelines of the G-20 economic summit in Toronto, Obama said, "Both on the security front and on the economic front, our friendship and alliance continue to grow."

The increasingly close relationship between Washington and Seoul is in part due to the personal dynamic between Obama and Lee, and because North Korea has pushed the two closer by attacking the Cheonan, and testing missiles and two nuclear devices. China has also played a role in pushing the South closer to the United States by failing to publicly criticize North Korea after the attack on the Cheonan. China has also not accepted the results of an international investigation into the sinking.

Adding more uncertainty to the security environment on the Korean Peninsula is Kim Jong Un and the political transition.

Saturday's announcement, carried by North Korea's Central News Agency, said the September convention will be held to elect the ruling party's "highest leading body." The report did not name Kim Jong Un specifically.

Very little is known about the man, who is believed to be 27 years old. Since North Korea was established in 1948, it has had two leaders -- Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung.

Kim Il Sung died of a heart attack in 1994, but his son's succession -- the first successful hereditary transfer of power for a communist nation -- had been established publicly 14 years earlier. North Korea watchers and those with sources inside the country believe that a rushed transfer of power, with little time given to boost Kim Jong Un's credentials, will further heighten the nation's instability.

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