N. Korea Conference Hints At Possible Power Shift

With delegates from the Workers' Party believed to be gathered in the capital Pyongyang for a political conference, North Korea watchers are saying a leadership change could be in the works. But the meeting is cloaked in secrecy, making it difficult for outsiders to determine where the nuclear-armed country is headed.

The Workers' Party conference is the largest political gathering held in North Korea in three decades, and what happens during the meeting could have significant implications for U.S. national security concerns. But that is about all the Obama administration can determine with any certainty.

The rest is a bit of analysis, and a bit of guesswork, says Jim Walsh, an international security expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

"It's very difficult to get good intelligence on North Korea," Walsh says. "It is arguably the most closed country in the world. Fundamentally, no matter what information people have, there's a big unknown here."

Walsh, who has met with North Korean officials in the past, says some analysts believe ailing North Korean leader Kim Jong Il will begin to pass the reins of power to his third son, Kim Jong Un, during the conference.

Walsh says others think there is an internal power struggle going on, and that the army may want to take control of the country.

"If you're sitting in any of these world capitals, you're nervous because you don't know what's going to happen," Walsh adds. "This is a period of change and there's no way to predict what direction that change will take, and there's not a heck of a lot you can do about it."

Little is known about Kim Jong Un. It's believed he's in his late 20s or early 30s, attended Swiss boarding school and reportedly loves skiing and basketball. The last known photograph of him was taken when he was a teenager.

Robert Gallucci, president of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and a former chief U.S. negotiator with North Korea, says it would be hard for the Obama administration to know what responsibilities Kim Jong Un would assume.

"Analysts would want to know what role Kim Jong Un is playing, if any, in the North," Gallucci says. "Is transition under way? Is this the time we're going to see the marks of such a transition?"

But could Kim Jong Un handle the job?

When his father and current leader Kim Jong Il assumed power in 1994, he'd had many years to work his way up the political ladder. But he has suffered a stroke, and reportedly is sick and may not have as much time to groom his son.

North Korea has been hit by severe floods, the economy is a wreck; there's anger against the government, and there's the potential that North Korea could internally collapse, says Michael Green, who was a senior adviser on Asia policy in the George W. Bush administration.

"North Korea is potentially a more dangerous country than it's ever been," Green says. "The North Koreans have now fissile material. They have chemical and biological stockpiles, and they have been engaged in criminal activities through international crime syndicates for years. So if this system falls apart, you can easily imagine how any administration in Washington would be very, very worried."

Given that, Green says, the Obama administration needs to open up some line of communication with North Korea.

"The Obama administration feels uncomfortable having no contact with the North, so they're considering how and when they can re-engage," Green says, "but not expecting the engagement in itself to solve their problems — simply to give them another window and another way to understand what's happening in the North."

But relations between the two countries are at a particular low point right now, following North Korea's sinking of a South Korean warship, which killed 47 sailors.

The MacArthur Foundation's Gallucci says options for the U.S. are limited.

"You have to ask the question of timing, immediately after the sinking of a South Korean ship — it's not a terrific idea to run to Pyongyang and propose discussions," Gallucci says. "But I also don't think that simply watchful waiting as a strategy for dealing with the North is sufficiently proactive."

For the moment, that may be all the U.S. can do until it gets some clear sign of what has happened at the Workers' Party conference, and where North Korea is headed.

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