By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, September 4, 2010; 6:26 PM
TOKYO - North Korean leader Kim Jong Il will probably use an upcoming meeting of party elites to introduce his heir apparent, initiating the Stalinist dictatorship's second hereditary power transfer, U.S. and South Korean experts and officials say.
Kim's youngest son, Kim Jong Eun, is widely expected to be given at least one high-level leadership position - the first step to claiming absolute power on a par with his father's.
Experts differ on whether the younger Kim's rise will be publicly heralded. But in any case, moves made in coming days could lend the first real insight into Kim Jong Il's strategy for maintaining his family's power as his country deals with a frail economy, severe food shortages and international pressure to denuclearize.
North Korea has not announced dates for the party delegates meeting in Pyongyang, a rare forum reserved for landmark decision-making. Good Friends, a Seoul-based humanitarian group with ties to the North, said the forum would begin Saturday. Other experts predicted it would open Monday, with Kim Jong Eun being promoted on the final day. North Korea celebrates the anniversary of its founding Thursday.
Observers say that the elder Kim, who suffered a stroke in 2008, is rushing the power transfer because of health problems. Kim Jong Eun is thought to be in his mid- or late 20s.
"This conference would be an opportunity to lay the foundation of the post-Kim Jong Il era," said Kim Heung-kyu, a professor at Sungshin Women's University in Seoul.
North Korea held similar delegates' conferences in 1958 and 1966. Such meetings provide latitude for juggling the hierarchy, revising the constitution and adjusting the balance of power between the military and Workers' Party. Many North Korea analysts in Seoul and Washington predict that Kim Jong Il will attempt either to rebuild power in the Workers' Party, which has lost influence to the military and seen its membership decline, or dilute power in the military. Either way, Kim wants a system where elites on both sides check each other.
The Workers' Party is supposed to hold a congress session every five years, but it has not met since 1980, when Kim took power from his father behind the scenes.
"The conference will be a chance for the party to recover its power," said Park Hyeong-jung, a researcher at the Korea Institute for National Unification. "The appointment of the officials can give us an idea about how North Korea will run the nation."
In recent days, North Korea has escalated its rhetoric about the "rising generation," though Pyongyang's official Korean Central News Agency has not mentioned Kim Jong Eun by name. During last week's trip to China - North Korea's primary benefactor - Kim Jong Il took part in an evening ceremony at the Nanhu State Guesthouse in Changchun City, according to the KCNA. The agency listed at least 24 Chinese and Korean officials who attended, including Jang Song Taek, Kim Jong Il's brother-in-law, who is expected to act as a regent for the power transfer, and Chinese President Hu Jintao.
According to a transcript of Kim's speech that night, published by the KCNA, Kim said that given the "complicated" international situation, "it is our important historical mission to hand over to the rising generation the baton of the traditional friendship."
A subsequent 2,860-word account of the trip, also published by the KCNA, made three references to China-North Korea relations as one "generation is replaced by another."