North Korea's party leaders gather in Pyongyang as speculation about Kim Jong Il's successor intensifies
Monday, September 6, 2010; 5:13 PM
SEOUL - Party officials are arriving in Pyongyang, North Korea's state-run media said Monday, signaling an imminent meeting that outsiders describe as a critical step in leader Kim Jong Il's hereditary power transfer.
North Korea's newspaper, the Rodung Sinmun, said that the rare meeting of Workers' Party delegates would "mark a meaningful chapter in the history of our party." Photos from Pyongyang showed citizens staging a practice celebration. Troops have gathered in the city, ready for a military parade, according to the South Korean government. Japan's Kyodo news agency reported that children have been marching the streets, singing "Footsteps," which hails Kim Jong Il's youngest son.
North Korea, the world's most reclusive nation, said in June that it would hold a party conference - its first such extraordinary meeting since 1966 - sometime in early September. Specific dates are unknown, but North Korea analysts believe the conference will be held this week, staged to announce an overhaul of leadership and a high-level position for heir Kim Jong Eun.
Reporters from China's Xinhua news agency, in Pyongyang during the weekend, described seeing "several thousand people, with colorful plastic bouquets in hand, gathered at the square to practice for the celebration of the party conference and their country's 62nd birthday."
Much about the upcoming North Korean conference is left to guesswork, with analysts offering conflicting opinions about whether Kim Jong Eun will be publicly heralded as the next leader or quietly handed a stepping-stone position, perhaps claiming power in 2012.
North Korea has promised to build a strong and prosperous nation by 2012, the 100th birthday of deceased founder Kim Il Sung. For decades, North Korea has struggled to feed its people, instead using rigid surveillance systems and imprisonment to maintain order.
As Kim Jong Il has concentrated power in the military, much of North Korea's political structure has eroded, with party membership shrinking. The Party Congress, which is supposed to meet every five years, last met in 1980, when Kim Jong Il was stamped as the successor to his father.
By the time Kim Il Sung died in 1994, Kim Jong Il had been North Korea's day-to-day leader for more than a decade. This power transfer, analysts say, is rushed. Kim Jong Eun is thought to be in his mid- or late 20s, and has not yet built a support system within the party or military. With Kim Jong Il ailing, having suffered a stroke in 2008, analysts and U.S. officials speculate that Jang Song Taek, Kim Jong Il's brother-in-law, has been appointed as a regent for the transition.
Baek Seung Joo, at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses, suggested that the party conference could lead to restructuring that helps Kim Jong Eun build a network of support. Giving Kim Jong Eun multiple high-level posts, as his father has, "would be too much at one time," Baek said.