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North Korea meeting likely to set stage for dynastic succession

Agence France Presse - September 26, 2010

Simon Martin, Seoul North Korea will this week launch its biggest political meeting for 30 years, apparently paving the way for another dynastic succession in the impoverished hardline communist nation.

The Workers' Party conference, scheduled to begin Tuesday, was delayed from early September for reasons which like much else in the reclusive country remain a mystery to the outside world.

It will be the first major ruling party gathering since 1980, when current leader Kim Jong-Il was publicly confirmed as eventual successor to his own father and the North's founding president Kim Il-Sung, who died in 1994.

The 68-year-old Kim, who suffered a stroke two years ago and also reportedly has kidney problems, is widely expected to build support this week for an eventual takeover by his youngest son, Kim Jong-Un.

Delegates arrived in Pyongyang Sunday, the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said, in apparent confirmation the meeting will open on the rescheduled date.

State media in one of the world's most secretive countries has given no hint of any succession moves. But it has suggested that this could be a watershed moment in the nuclear-armed nation.

The conference to elect the party's "supreme leadership body" will be a "historic" meeting, KCNA said last week. After 62 years of uninterrupted rule by the Kim dynasty, the output of the North's command economy is a fraction of its capitalist southern neighbour.

Missile and nuclear programmes have brought international sanctions and isolation. Severe food shortages have persisted since a famine in the 1990s, leaving a generation stunted by malnutrition.

Given the problems which the regime is grappling, analysts say this may not be a good time for the Swiss-educated Jong-Un, believed aged around 27, to step into the limelight by taking a top party post.

Cheong Seong-Chang, of South Korea's Sejong Institute think-tank, said the son is unlikely to join the presidium the top echelon of the party's politburo until 2012.

Leader Kim has set that year, the 100th anniversary of his late father's birth, as the time for the North to become a "great, powerful and prosperous" nation.

However, Paik Hak-Soon also of Sejong said Jong-Un will likely join the party's central committee or even the presidium this week.

Paik told AFP that Kim Jong-Il took over these powerful positions step by step until 1980, when he became de facto successor. The process for Jong-Un would be "greatly expedited" due to Kim Jong-Il's failing health, Paik said.

"This week's event will likely be a repetition of the party meeting in 1980, to declare Jong-Un as the next leader," he told AFP.

Other analysts believe there will be no public announcement. The regime is "now ready to go ahead with its move to designate Kim Jong-Un as successor", said Yang Moo-Jin of Seoul's University of North Korean Studies.

"The son is expected to take a key party post but that will not be made public for a while," Yang said.

Kim Yong-Hyun of Seoul's Dongguk University said Jong-Un would probably become formal heir-apparent or take a post overseeing the party, although the move may not be disclosed until Pyongyang deems it appropriate.

The conference is also expected to give top party posts to supporters of a dynastic succession, such as the senior Kim's powerful brother-in-law Jang Song-Thaek. It could also suggest some new policy directions.

But Paik said potentially controversial issues like economic reforms would take a back seat this time, since a smooth power transfer is top priority now.

"Jong-Un can later take over the task (of reforming the economy) and use it as his own achievement as the leader," Paik said.

China, the North's economic lifeline and sole major ally, has pressed it to follow its example in freeing up the economy. But Kim's regime appears so far to be fearful of relaxing its grip.

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