North Korea Signals Succession Plans Under Way

North Korean leader Kim Jong Il in Beijing i i

North Korean leader Kim Jong Il waves goodbye to Chinese leaders at a train station in Beijing during his visit to China in early May. North Korea watchers believe that Kim Jong Il's third son and putative heir, Kim Jong Un, has accompanied him on recent trips to China, a sign that a leadership transition is under way. AP/Korean Central News Agency via Korea News Service hide caption

itoggle caption AP/Korean Central News Agency via Korea News Service
North Korean leader Kim Jong Il in Beijing

North Korean leader Kim Jong Il waves goodbye to Chinese leaders at a train station in Beijing during his visit to China in early May. North Korea watchers believe that Kim Jong Il's third son and putative heir, Kim Jong Un, has accompanied him on recent trips to China, a sign that a leadership transition is under way.

AP/Korean Central News Agency via Korea News Service

For the first time in decades, North Korea is set to hold a Workers' Party Conference. The meeting could take place as early as this weekend — although, true to form, nobody knows for sure when it will start or what exactly will happen.

But observers say North Korea's ailing ruler, Kim Jong Il, could be set to pass the reins of the world's only communist dynasty to a third generation.

It's a sign of how little the outside world knows about North Korea that analysts have been parsing poetry for political signals — more specifically, one particular poem in the country's official newspaper.

One line read: "We hear the sound of those vigorous footsteps that have perfectly inherited the mettle and vigor of our general."

This was taken as code. "Our general" refers to current leader Kim Jong Il. "Inheriting his mettle" appears to justify a third-generation dynastic succession.

The biggest signal, however, was "footsteps" — the name of a propaganda song released last year, in praise of Kim's third son and chosen heir, Kim Jong Un. This is what counts as political analysis in North Korea — even though the third son's name hasn't even been mentioned in the official North Korean media.

Kim Jong Il at a power station construction site in South Hamyong province i i

An undated picture released by North Korea's Central News Agency on Aug. 4 and distributed by Tokyo's Korean News Service on Aug. 5 shows North Korean leader Kim Jong Il waving to a crowd during a visit to the construction site of the Kumyagang Army-People Power Station in South Hamgyong province. KNS/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption KNS/AFP/Getty Images
Kim Jong Il at a power station construction site in South Hamyong province

An undated picture released by North Korea's Central News Agency on Aug. 4 and distributed by Tokyo's Korean News Service on Aug. 5 shows North Korean leader Kim Jong Il waving to a crowd during a visit to the construction site of the Kumyagang Army-People Power Station in South Hamgyong province.

KNS/AFP/Getty Images

Announcing A Successor

What is clear, however, is that Pyongyang is about to hold a Workers' Party conference in the coming days; Andrei Lankov of Kookmin University in Seoul says it's hugely symbolic.

"Last time such a gathering took place, in 1980, it met to announce that Kim Jong Il would become the successor, the head-designate to his father. So we can be fairly sure that Kim Jong Un's promotion is going to happen," Lankov says.

North Korean television is already reporting the election of delegates to the conference. Little is known about Kim Jong Un, except that he is about 27, he studied in Switzerland and he likes Eric Clapton.

North Korea watcher Cai Jian from Fudan University in Shanghai says in view of his age and experience, he may first be given a party post.

"Many foreign analysts believe he may be appointed to a position in the organization department, which is in charge of promoting government officials. He could use that position to appoint people he trusts and build up his own power base," Cai says.

Kim Jong Il met recently with Chinese President Hu Jintao in northeast China. The trip is widely seen as a courtesy call, introducing his son to China's leaders. Kim also may have sought Chinese economic aid, though there are no reports that he received any.

Also on the trip was Jang Song Taek, the North Korean leader's brother-in-law. Jang is thought to be a key figure, a kind of regent who could shepherd Kim Jong Un through the transition. There is some speculation that Jang could be part of a new collective leadership.

Certainly, new faces will populate the Politburo. Only eight of its 34 members are still alive; those who have died haven't been replaced.

Sign Of Changes To Come?

Glyn Ford, a former E.U. lawmaker who has visited North Korea 20 times, recently returned from Pyongyang and believes economic reform could be in the offing.

"I'm expecting a wave of change that will sweep through the institutions of North Korea over the next six months," he says, adding that there is evidence right now of a swing toward socialist modernizers.

One sign pointing toward this is the recent rehabilitation of Pak Pong Ju, a reformist premier who was fired and sent to work as a factory manager. Following widely unpopular currency reforms in his absence, he is now back with a Workers' Party post.

But Choi Soo-young from Korea Institute of National Unification in Seoul disagrees that this is meaningful.

"North Korea is still keeping in check the forces attempting to transition to a market economy. Even if the regime undergoes rejuvenation, the focus will remain on strengthening of the socialist system," Choi says.

But transitions are politically risky, threatening entrenched interests. Lankov of Kookmin University says he expects stability in the short term, but isn't so sure about the medium term.

"Then things will become interesting. The old guard, the people who want to control the new successor Kim Jong Un, they are in their late 70s. Kim Jong Un will become older and more experienced. So you cannot rule out that they will clash eventually," Lankov says.

And Pyongyang could be preparing for the worst. A little-noticed official visit hints at this. A Chinese military commander in charge of Shenyang, which neighbors North Korea, was welcomed to Pyongyang by the head of state, Kim Yong Nam. Sources say this unusually high-level reception could hint at emergency plans being laid. It also sends an unmistakable warning: Don't destabilize the transition of power, or else.

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