North Korea reschedules leadership conference
Tuesday, September 21, 2010; 12:08 AM
TOKYO - North Korea will hold a landmark political meeting on Sept. 28 to elect "its supreme leadership body," state media said Tuesday, in what outside analysts view as a key step in leader Kim Jong Il's hereditary succession plan.
The short statement from the Korean Central News Agency removed some of the mystery surrounding a party conference that was originally scheduled for "early September" and then was delayed without explanation.
Experts on North Korea believe that Kim Jong Il, 68 and in failing health, must act quickly to pass the torch. His youngest son, Kim Jong Eun, is the presumed heir, although the world's most secretive state has never revealed information about him.
The party conference, analysts say, could provide the younger Kim with a key party position. It could also lead to a reshuffling within the country's ruling party or the military, with Kim Jong Eun attempting to build his own power base.
Tensions on the Korean peninsula have eased in recent weeks, with the South now providing aid to the flood-stricken North as the two sides contemplate military-level talks, but the North faces numerous internal issues that undermine the celebratory mood that would accompany the party conference.
A typhoon earlier this month killed dozens and destroyed thousands of homes. Trenchant food shortages leave millions hungry. North Koreans, with growing access to media from South Korea and China, show increasing skepticism about their own government.
North Korea tried to hold the conference two weeks ago and failed. Delegates arrived from across the country in Pyongyang on Sept. 6, the state news agency reported. News photographs showed children marching in the streets. And then, without explanation, delegates returned home.
South Korea's government attributed the delay to "internal reasons." Perhaps North Korea didn't want to hold its conference amid widespread problems caused by the typhoon. Perhaps, other experts guessed, Kim Jong Il - just back from an Aug. 26-30 trip to China - was dealing with health problems. Or maybe North Korea needed extra time to debate policy changes.
Even the notion that Kim Jong Eun will succeed his father relies mostly on opaque clues. One Seoul-based media group with contacts in the North, Open Radio for North Korea, believes that 10 million portraits of the son have already been printed, ready for distribution. Children in Korea have reportedly been signing a song, "Footsteps," that honors Kim Jong Eun. During a speech in China, Kim Jong Il made reference to the "rising generation."
But U.S. officials point out that North Korea is the world's toughest intelligence target.
Before a Senate panel on Thursday, the State Department's assistant secretary of state for the region, Kurt Campbell, described North Korea as a "black box."
"We have some glimpses and some intelligence and the like, but the truth is, oftentimes in retrospect, some of that intelligence has proven to be wrong," Campbell said.
Asked by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) to address the likelihood that Kim Jong Il will move forward with his hereditary power transfer, Campbell said, "Your guess is as good as ours, senator."
"Well that's an interesting comment on our intelligence capability in North Korea," McCain said.