North Korea confirmed today that a major communist party convention will be held next week as observers speculated that the secretive regime’s ageing leader was ready to give his son an important position to pave the way for his succession.
Kim Jong Il took control of North Korea in 1994 when his father died of heart failure in what was communism’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 transition by appointing him to top party posts at the Workers’ Party convention.
Delegates will meet on September 28 to elect new party leaders, the official Korean Central News Agency reported today in a dispatch from Pyongyang.
The report did not explain why the meeting, initially set for “early September”, had been postponed.
North Korea has been struggling to cope with devastating flooding and a typhoon which killed dozens of people and destroyed roads, railways and homes earlier this month, according to state media.
Delegates across the country were appointed “against the background of a high-pitched drive for effecting a new great revolutionary surge now under way on all fronts for building a thriving nation with the historic conference”, the KCNA report said.
The rhetoric has been building ahead of the conference, the first major Workers’ Party gathering since the landmark 1980 congress where Kim Jong Il, then 38, made his political debut in an appearance seen as confirmation that he would eventually succeed his father, North Korea founder Kim Il Sung.
Today’s announcement could mean that the internal debate is over and the regime has “reached a final conclusion” on the succession process, said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the Seoul-based University of North Korean Studies.
“I believe North Korea has decided to give the successor an official title but not to make it public to the outside world.”
Succession speculation has intensified since Kim reportedly suffered a stroke in 2008, sparking concerns about instability in the nuclear-armed country if he was to die without anointing a successor. Kim is also said to be suffering from diabetes and a kidney ailment.
Little is known about the son widely believed to be his father’s favourite. Kim Jong Un, said to be in his late 20s and schooled in Switzerland, has never been mentioned in state media, and there are no confirmed photos of him as an adult.
He has two older brothers, Jong Nam and Jong Chol. But Kenji Fujimoto, who says he was Kim Jong Il’s sushi chef for more than 10 years, wrote in a memoir that it is the youngest who is most like his father, ruthless and competitive even as a child.
South Korean intelligence officers believe Pyongyang has launched a propaganda campaign promoting the son, including songs and poems praising the junior Kim. He is already reportedly being hailed as the “Young General” and “Our Commander”, with soldiers and workers pledging allegiance to the son on his birthday in January.
The process, however, is shrouded in secrecy, evidenced by the fact that South Korean officials did not even know how to spell the son’s name until last year.
Earlier this week, former US president Jimmy Carter said Chinese Premier Wen Jiaobao told him that Kim disputed the prospective promotion of his youngest son as a “false rumour” – underlining the difficulty of reading the isolated regime.
“I was amazed when he made that statement,” Mr Carter said in a phone interview yesterday. “He said that Kim Jong Il made a flat statement that his succession story was a false Western rumour.”
Mr Carter made a rare trip to Pyongyang last month to secure the release of an imprisoned American but did not meet Kim, who was in China at the time.
Next week, delegates are expected to elect new party leaders to fill spots left vacant for years. It’s not clear which party position Kim Jong Un might take in what would be his first known official job.
Keen attention is also focused on Kim Jong Il’s only sister, Kim Kyong Hui, who in the past two years has been a frequent companion to the leader on field trips to army bases and factories. She currently serves as the political party’s department chief for light industry.
Her husband, Jang Song Thaek, has also been rising in stature. He was promoted in June to a vice chairman of the powerful National Defence Commission, making him the number two official to Kim Jong Il on the regime’s top state organ.
The conference is being held amid preparations for the milestone 65th anniversary of the founding of the Workers’ Party on October 10, improving relations with Seoul, and attempts by diplomats from neighbouring nations to revive dormant six-nation disarmament negotiations on North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme.
North Korea walked away from the talks last year in protest over UN Security Council condemnation for launching a long-range rocket, widely seen as a test of its missile technology.