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In North Korea, delegates from the Workers' Party are believed to have gathered in the capital for an important political conference. When it comes to North Korea, it's hard to know anything for sure. The meeting is, not surprisingly, secret. But some North Korea watchers believe this could be the beginning of a leadership change in the country. NPR's Jackie Northam has our report.

JACKIE NORTHAM: The Workers' Party conference is the largest political gathering held in North Korea in three decades, and what happens during the conference 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.

Dr. JIM WALSH (Massachusetts Institute of Technology): It's very difficult to get good intelligence on North Korea. It is arguably the most closed country in the world. Fundamentally, no matter what information people have, there's a big unknown here.

NORTHAM: Walsh, who has met with North Korean officials in the past, says some analysts believe that the 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.

Dr. WALSH: I think if you're sitting in any of these world capitals, you're nervous because you don't know what's going to happen. And 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.

NORTHAM: If Kim Jong Un is named to replace his father, there's little known about him. It's believed he's in his late 20s or early 30s. He 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 is the president of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and is a former chief American negotiator with North Korea. He says it would be hard for the Obama administration to know what responsibilities Kim Jong Un would assume and how he might reshape North Korean policy.

Mr. ROBERT GALLUCCI (President, John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation): Right now, I think their analysts would want to know what role Kim Jong Un is playing, if any, in the North. Is transition under way? Is this a time when we're going to see the marks of such a transition?

NORTHAM: And can 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, is reportedly sick, and may not have as much time to groom his son.

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

Green says the U.S. needs to be prepared for such an event.

Mr. MICHAEL GREEN (Asia Policy Advisor): North Korea's potentially a more dangerous country than it's ever been. The North Koreans have now fissile material. And 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.

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

Mr. GREEN: I think the Obama administration feels uncomfortable having no contact with the North, and so they're considering how and when they can re-engage, 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.

NORTHAM: 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.

Mr. GALLUCCI: I think that 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 into Pyongyang and propose discussions. But I also don't think that simply watchful waiting as a strategy for dealing with the North is sufficiently proactive.

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

Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington.

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