Still no word from N. Korea about conference delay, but much speculation

A top North Korean official confirmed to broadcaster APTN, Oct. 8, 2010, that Kim Jong Il's youngest son will succeed him as the next leader of the reclusive communist nation. In the first public confirmation of the succession plan, Yang Hyong Sop, a top official in North Korea's ruling party, referred to Kim Jong Un as "the young general."
By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, September 13, 2010; 8:02 PM

SEOUL - One week after delegates from across the country arrived in Pyongyang, the North Korean government has issued no word about a landmark party conference that once seemed imminent. The presumed delay in the Workers' Party conference - viewed by outside experts as a means to solidify a hereditary power transfer - has raised concerns that something is amiss, with one South Korean TV news station on Monday attributing the holdup to health problems of leader Kim Jong Il.

Most experts had expected the meeting to convene last week. North Korea never specified a start date for the conference, saying only that it would begin in "early September."

The report from South Korea's YTN news channel, which cited an anonymous South Korean intelligence official, said Kim's unspecified health problems were not serious enough for a cancellation of the event. Numerous experts, as well as South Korea's national intelligence chief, Won Se-hoon, warned of drawing a link between Kim's health and the event's delay. Kim's health could conceivably have put the conference on hold, some experts said, but it's impossible to know.

"His health was good enough to visit China" in late August, said Kim Heung-kyu, a North Korea expert at Seoul's Sungshin Women's University. "And he's believed to have drunken a lot as well, indicating his health is not as bad as we think."

The North Korean leader, 68, suffered a stroke in August 2008, according to U.S. intelligence officials. Others who follow clues about Kim believe he requires occasional kidney dialysis and is fighting diabetes.

No matter his current condition, his physical well-being remains among the largest variables in North Korea's ability to transfer power and avert collapse. North Korea's presumed heir, the leader's youngest son, Kim Jong Eun, is thought to be in his late 20s, and security analysts figure he'll need several years to gain credibility and build his own power base. If Kim Jong Il is alive while that happens, Kim Jong Eun will face fewer threats.

(SEE PHOTOS: Looking ahead at North Korea's leadership)

North Korea takes elaborate steps to safeguard all information about Kim Jong Il's physical and mental condition. His rare trips outside the country are not announced until they finish, and he travels with his own doctors.

During the weekend, Pyongyang's state-run news agency indicated that Kim had recently taken "field guidance" trips to Chagang province, along the Chinese border, visiting a mine and a chemical plant. The reports did not say when, specifically, Kim had visited either site, but such reports typically come one day after a visit.

Speculation about Kim's health comes amid improving relations on the Korean Peninsula. South Korea said Monday that it will send rice and cement to flood victims in North Korea, ending a freeze on aid that coincided with the bitter fallout from the late March sinking of South Korea's Cheonan warship.

South Korea's Red Cross will provide 5,000 tons of rice, enough to feed 200,000 people for 50 days, said its chief, Yoo Chong-ha.

Before President Lee Myung-bak took office in 2008, South Korea routinely donated more than 100,000 tons annually. But Lee conditioned the gifts on progress with denuclearization and human rights.

Pyongyang said recently that it would be open to a new round of disarmament talks, and the U.S. official responsible for North Korean policy, Stephen W. Bosworth, visited Seoul on Monday to gather momentum for reengagement. Bosworth, who will also visit Tokyo and Beijing, expressed optimism that six-party talks can resume after a round of bilateral meetings - provided North Korea shows a willingness to cooperate.

"We look for North Korea's attitude to be expressed through its actions, not simply through its rhetoric," Bosworth said.

Special correspondent Yoonjung Seo contributed to this report.

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