By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, September 11, 2010; 2:05 PM
SEOUL - North Korea remained silent Saturday about a kick-off date for a political conference widely expected to mark a hereditary power transfer, but it took a step in the meantime toward mending frayed ties with South Korea.
The North's state-run news agency reported Saturday that the Pyongyang government wants to resume a reunion program for families living on opposite sides of the divided peninsula. If the South agrees to that, as observers say is likely, select Koreans will be able to see their separated relatives for the first time in a year.
However, no further clues were offered about an upcoming Workers' Party conference in Pyongyang, which state media had initially slated for "early September." Nor was any mention made of leader Kim Jong Il's youngest son, Kim Jong Eun, who analysts predict will emerge from the conference with a key party position, confirming his anointment as the Stalinist dictatorship's future leader.
As North Korea adheres to its standard secrecy, outside experts have tried to make sense of the mystery, debating not only the meaning of the meeting's delay, but also the definition of "early."
The widely accepted assumption had been that the North would hold its meeting last week, before the Sept. 9 holiday commemorating its foundation. The Korean Central News Agency said Monday that party delegates were arriving in Pyongyang, where billboards proclaim the event. Now, observers wonder whether "early" simply means anytime before Sept. 15.
In Seoul, some analysts have wondered whether the holdup is linked to economic difficulties. Some speculate that it has to do with last-minute security checks on delegates. Others say it reflects ongoing debates about policy changes, given that the conference is a stage for announcements, not arguments.
Ha Tae-keung, who runs Open Radio for North Korea, a Seoul-based station with informants in the North, attributes the delay to Kim Jong Il's health. Kim, Ha said, is still fatigued from a recent trip to China.
"Kim Jong Il has to appear at the conference for four to five hours a day for two days, and without getting much-needed rest, it would be impossible for him to be present," said Ha, who said he expects the conference will be held sometime next week.
"There is a very slim chance of the conference being held and us not knowing it," added Sohn Kwang-joo, editor of Daily NK, an online news outlet. "It involves several thousand participants nationwide, and it requires rehearsals beforehand. But there were no movements detected about it yet."
North and South Korea used early September to step back slightly from hostility that dates to the March torpedoing of the South's Cheonan warship. In recent weeks, Seoul proposed an $8.4 million donation of flood aid to the North. The North released a captured South Korean fishing boat. Then it requested rice, cement and machinery. Politicians in the South spoke encouragingly about approving the request - though it hasn't happened yet.
The North's latest proposal, for reunions between families separated by the demilitarized zone, is seen by analysts as another safe step toward repairing elations. According to its news agency, it suggested that officials from the North's Red Cross meet with their South Korean counterparts as soon as possible to discuss the idea. The reunions could take place Sept. 22, a major Korean holiday akin to Thanksgiving.
The idea of such brief face-to-face family visits grew out of a North-South summit in 2000. Since then, according to South Korea's Yonhap news agency, some 20,000 Koreans have been reunited.
Special correspondent Yoonjung Seo contributed to this report.