Delegates to North Korea’s biggest political meeting in decades were gathering in the country’s capital today amid speculation that leader Kim Jong Il is to appoint one of his sons and other family members to key positions as part of a succession plan.
The official Korean Central News Agency announced last week that the ruling Workers’ Party would hold a conference tomorrow to select its “supreme leadership body” after having initially said in June that the event would be held in early September. KCNA gave no explanation for the delay.
Party delegates to the conference arrived at Pyongyang’s railway station yesterday in sunny, breezy weather, footage shot by video news service APTN in the North Korean capital showed.
The city was festooned with flags and placards announcing the meeting.
“Warm congratulations to the representatives meeting of the Workers’ Party of Korea!” read one poster.
North Korea’s state news agency carried a brief dispatch yesterday about the arrival of delegates but gave no details about the meeting itself.
Rodong Sinmun, the North’s leading newspaper, ran an article praising the party and emphasising its loyalty to the country’s leader.
“The WPK remains so strong as its ranks are made up of ardent loyalists who unhesitatingly dedicate their lives to devotedly defending the headquarters of the revolution, sharing idea and intention and fate with the leader,” said the article, carried today by KCNA.
The widely anticipated meeting will be the party’s first major gathering since a landmark congress in 1980 where then 38-year-old Kim Jong Il made his political debut. That appearance confirmed he was in line to succeed his father, North Korea founder Kim Il Sung.
Kim Jong Il eventually took control when his father died of heart failure in 1994 in what was the communist world’s first hereditary transfer of power.
Now 68 and reportedly in poor health two years after suffering a stroke, Kim is believed to be preparing his third and youngest son, Kim Jong Un, for a similar father-to-son power transition.
That has triggered speculation that the son could be given a key post at the Workers’ Party conference as part of a third-generation power transfer.
Kim Jong Un has been elected to attend tomorrow’s party conference as a delegate of the Korean People’s Army, South Korea’s Chosun Ilbo newspaper reported today, citing a source in North Korea it did not identify.
After Kim Jong Un was elected as a delegate, the party central committee put out internal propaganda proclaiming him to be Kim Jong Il’s sole successor, the report said, citing the unnamed North Korean.
Backing by the military is considered a prerequisite for the succession to be carried out smoothly in a country which operates on a “songun”, or “military first” policy in which priority is given to the armed forces.
Kim Jong Il was officially chosen as successor in 1972, when he was elected to the party’s central committee, and the same scenario could hold true for Kim Jong Un tomorrow, reported the paper, South Korea’s largest.
The question of who will take over from Kim Jong Il, believed to suffer from a host of ailments, is important to regional security because of North Korea’s active nuclear and missile programmes, and regular threats it makes against rival South Korea.
Some experts fear political instability or even a power struggle if Kim were to die or become incapacitated without clearly naming a successor. Kim Jong Un, believed to be in his 20s, has two older brothers, who have over the years been mentioned as possible successors.
Internal debate among the party elite over whether to publicise Kim Jong Un’s possible political appointment to the outside world, as well as concern about recent devastation from flooding and a deadly typhoon, likely prompted the delay, analysts speculated.
Separately, the United States and South Korea began military exercises today in waters off the Korean peninsula, weeks after they were delayed by a typhoon.
The drills, set to continue until Friday, are being conducted in the Yellow Sea off the peninsula’s west coast, where a South Korean naval warship sank in late March near the inter-Korean maritime border. Seoul and Washington blame Pyongyang for torpedoing the ship, though the North denies responsibility.
The exercises are the second in a series of joint manoeuvres focusing on anti-submarine warfare tactics, techniques, and procedures, said Commander Won Hyung-seok, of the South Korean Defence Ministry.