Rumors Abound On Why North Korea Delays Meeting

North Korea's most important political meeting in three decades apparently has been delayed. Nobody knows the reasons behind the postponement of the Workers' Party Conference, during which it was believed a new leadership would be elected.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

No news from North Korea is not exactly news. But these days, no news has become a source of concern - add analysis and pure guessing. In early September, North Korea was supposed to hold its most important political conference in three decades. North Korean leader Kim Jong-il was expected to begin a transition of power to his son. So far, nothing's happened. And, as NPR's Louisa Lim reports from Seoul, nobody knows why.

(Soundbite of music)

LOUISA LIM: A song of praise for North Korea's Workers Party. Pyongyang was supposed to have been engulfed in a celebration for the party. Its biggest gathering in thirty years would have marked the start of a transition of power by leader Kim Jong-il to his third son, Kim Jong-eun.

Hundreds of delegates were summoned to Pyongyang - then nothing. The expected start date has come and gone. There've been no official announcements. But different theories are raging about why it's been delayed.

Chief Editor of the Daily NK websit,e Sohn Gwangju, gives some examples.

Mr. SOHN GWANGJU (Chief Editor, Daily NK Website): (Through translator) There could be conflicts of opinions about the composition of the Central Committee or about policy changes. There may have been a comprehensive threat to the security of North Korea. There is a rumor that propaganda bills were distributed in downtown Pyongyang, comparing the North Korean system to feudalism.

Unidentified Woman: (Chinese spoken)

LIM: Another theory is that Kim Jong-il's five day trip to China announced here on Chinese TV made him unwell. Alternatively, damage from storms could mean too few delegates made it to Pyongyang. Others speculate that disinformation is being planted on purpose to hunt out information leaks. One final theory is that the party is struggling to pay for gifts for the delegates.

The simple truth is that no one has any idea. But Sohn says the delays will not be popular, because of heightened security surrounding the conference.

Mr. SOHN: (Through translator) Special warning orders were issued, so fewer people were selling food. So, the price of rice has gone up by 20 to 30 percent. People need special passes to travel. With these measures, the social controls are more severe than martial law in a free society.

LIM: This, at a time when food shortages are severe. NGOs say there's been a recent spike in malnutrition-related deaths. Even the favored army, is suffering. This military defector describes how. He asked not to be named to protect family members still inside the North.

Unidentified Man: (Through translator) The reality is that there isn't enough clothing or food, even for the military. What sometimes happens is that soldiers steal from civilians. That's leading to severe conflict between ranks inside the military.

Unidentified Man #2: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: He is a member of a new group of military defectors called the North Korea People's Liberation Front. At their inauguration ceremony last week, they carried out a mock execution of Kim Jong-il. They all wear black-and-grey combat fatigues, even while sitting in front of computers in their suburban office.

General Secretary Jang Se-yul, a former army captain, says they make up to forty phone calls a day, with sources inside North Korea.

Mr. JANG SE-YUL (General Secretary, North Korea People's Liberation Front): (Through translator) Dissatisfaction is rampant, even among higher-ranking military officials. They fear that not only power, but also poverty is being handed down. But I don't feel they can organize themselves to carry out a coup.

LIM: There have been signs the government is aware of this discontent. Late last year, it attempted to curb the market with a hugely unpopular currency redenomination.

Erica Kang from Good Friends, an NGO with sources in the north, says its behavior then marked a new departure.

Ms. ERICA KANG (Good Friends): We are noticing so many changes in North Korean government's behavior. For instance, after currency changes, the prime minister of the country says the great public apology. It's desperation. And first time in a century it's actually reading public sentiments or public pressure.

LIM: North Korea remains a black box, closed to the outside world. Even by its own impulsive standards, this most recent behavior is extremely strange. For whatever reason, calling then delaying such a major conference can only be seen as a sign of weakness on the part of the ruling elite.

Louisa Lim, NPR News, Seoul.

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