North Korea says it will hold its biggest political meeting in a generation, amid speculation that leader Kim Jong Il is about to name his younger son as successor – a move that would take the Kim dynasty into a third generation.
The country's ruling communist party is to meet in Pyongyang on September 28 to elect its supreme leadership board. North Korea's KCNA news agency carried a statement early today calling the Workers' Party meeting "historic."
At the conference, the party is widely expected to promote Kim's third and youngest son, Kim Jong Un, to an important position to pave the way for the succession of the self-styled Dear Leader.
"This is something extremely important. It's not a full party congress. They haven't had one of those for 30 years," says Aidan Foster-Carter, a Korea expert at the University of Leeds in northern England. "But it's a meeting of activists, which precedes a full party congress. The last one was in 1966. So it is rare. It is exciting, particularly because -- as last time -- when they hold one of these, it's usually about the succession."
Last year, rumors emerged from the secretive state that Kim Jong Un was his father's chosen successor.
Last month, the North Korean leader visited his country's close ally China for what was seen as a move to introduce his youngest son and presumed successor to the Chinese leadership.
Foster-Carter says little is known of Swiss-educated Kim Jong Un, and there are no confirmed photos of him as an adult.
"He's about 27. He likes basketball. He was quite quiet but also by rumor he is supposed to be quite -- I don't know what the right word is -- willful or strong-headed," Foster-Carter says. "And that is perhaps a worry for the world, but it's supposed to be why his father likes him.
"But really, even by the standards of North Korea, we know incredibly little. And of course this can be an issue also in North Korean domestic politics. You do wonder whether, you know, the North Korean elite or powerful generals are really happy to entrust their future to such a young man with so little experience."
South Korean intelligence officers have said Pyongyang had launched a propaganda campaign promoting the junior Kim, including songs and poems praising him. North Korean soldiers and workers reportedly pledged allegiance to the son on his birthday in January.
Kim, 68, is believed to have suffered a stroke in 2008 and his health is reportedly deteriorating. In recent years, he is believed to have sought medical treatment in China.
Today’s announcement ends weeks of speculation about the date of the meeting, which is believed to have been delayed several times.
Next week’s event will be the first major Workers' Party gathering since 1980, when Kim Jong Il, then 38, appeared at a party congress. This was seen as confirmation that he would eventually succeed his father.
He eventually took over after North Korea founder Kim Il Sung died of heart failure in 1994 in what was communism's first hereditary transfer of power.
Led into isolation
Kim Jong Il has since led the nuclear-armed country into isolation from the outside world.
Now, the leader seems to be prepping his son for a similar transition.
Attention is also focused on the husband of Kim Jong Il's only sister. Jang Song Thaek was promoted in June to a vice chairman of the powerful National Defense Commission.
"To be frank about it, suppose Kim Jong Il, whose health is still, or again is, uncertain, suppose he was to die tomorrow," Foster-Carter says. "I think Jang Song Thaek would be the regent until Kim Jong Un was able to take over."
The conference is being held amid preparations for the 65th anniversary of the founding of the North Korean Workers' Party on October 10. It also comes as efforts to revive six-nation disarmament talks on North Korea's nuclear weapons program have stalled.
The negotiations, which include North and South Korea, the United States, Russia, China, and Japan, have been in crisis since North Korea walked out of them in April 2009 in protest at UN condemnation of an apparent missile test disguised as a space rocket launch. A month later, Pyongyang carried out its second nuclear test, sparking tougher UN sanctions.
Over the past year, prospects the talks could resume have only seemed to diminish further. Relations between North Korea and South Korea, a U.S. ally, plunged to a new low in March when Seoul blamed Pyongyang for sinking one of its warships, killing 46 sailors.
Today, Pyongyang denounced South Korea and the United States for planning antisubmarine drills in the Yellow Sea, describing them as a "nuclear war rehearsal." Reports say the exercise, originally planned for earlier this month, would begin as early as next week.
By. Antoine Blua