North Korea's Historical Party Meeting Is Underway

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North Korea's biggest political gathering in 30 years began Tuesday hours after leader Kim Jong Il appointed his youngest son as a military general in what was seen as part of a succession plan.


This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Ari Shapiro.


And I'm Steve Inskeep.

Here's another election result in this campaign season. The leader of North Korea has just been reelected general secretary of the ruling party. Nobody dared oppose him. So Kim Jong-il triumphed at the Congress of the North Korean Workers' Party. We're also learning about who he might want as his successor. At the first party congress in decades, Kim is expected to install one of his sons as the heir.

NPR's Rob Gifford is watching events from the South Korean capital, Seoul.

ROB GIFFORD: This morning, the North Korean news agency announced that Kim Jong-il had elevated his youngest son, Kim Jong-un, to be a general in the Korean People's Army, further increasing the speculation that he'll be named Kim Jong-il's designated successor. Unfortunately, the news agency didn't give any details about the younger Kim - like, for instance, who is he?

Brian Myers, an expert on North Korea at Dongseo University, has been trying to fill in the gaps.

Professor BRIAN MYERS (International Studies, Dongseo University): What we know is that he was born on January the 8th in 1984, that he is the second son of one of Kim Jong-il's mistresses, Ko Young-hee, and that he went to school in Switzerland for a few years, perhaps four years. We don't really know any more than that.

Perhaps the more interesting question is: What the North Korean people themselves know about him? And we've heard from refugees that ever since the latter half of last year, they have been hearing about him in their daily study meetings.

GIFFORD: But this is the first time his name has been announced in public. If the ground is being laid for a succession by Kim Jung-un, then it appears the elder Kim is also preparing a sort of regency role for his own 64-year-old sister, who was today also made a general in the army, and her husband, said to be the second-most powerful person in North Korea.

As the meeting got under way in Pyongyang today, a momentous anniversary was being celebrated in South Korea.

(Soundbite of drums and cheering)

GIFFORD: Today is the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Seoul from North Korean troops in the Korean War in 1950, after the Inchon Landings led by General Douglas MacArthur. Korean drummers, marching bands and army veterans from around the world paraded through the streets. But was anyone here even thinking about their erstwhile enemy and the possible succession taking place across the border, just 100 miles to the north?

Talking to 26-year-old medical student Dong Hoon and his classmate, Tsong Ook, who are here watching the parade, it didn't seem like it.

Mr. DONG HOON (Medical Student): Typical people of our generation these days in Korea, just common not to paying so many attention to North Korea. We don't care about that.

Mr. TSONG OOK (Medical Student): My grandfather and grandmother paid attention to North Korea, but my parents doesn't pay attention to the North Korea, and I also no attention.

GIFFORD: Which seems all the more extraordinary considering the nature of the possible threat and North Korean behavior of the last year - not least the sinking of a South Korean naval ship in March, with the loss of 46 lives.

Brian Myers says he doesn't expect anything much to change in North Korea as a result of today's announcements or, indeed, for continuing animosity towards the United States and South Korea to be reduced.

Prof. MYERS: Personally, I do believe that this is simply part of North Korea's routine, which is to push the relationship between America and North Korea to the brink, and then to step back by offering concessions. North Korea simply cannot change. The only way in which it can justify its existence as a separate North Korean state is by following path of brinkmanship and confrontational anti-Americanism. It's really all the regime has with which it can inspire the people to work harder.

GIFFORD: The North Korean party meeting is due to last three days. And analysts say Kim Jung-un is likely to be appointed to other key positions within the party and the army.

Rob Gifford, NPR News, Seoul, South Korea.

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