News / Asia

North Korea Sets Date for Rare Leadership Conference

North Korea has set the date for a major political conference where Kim Jong Il is expected to name an heir to the world's only Communist dynasty. Kim Jong Il is said to have suffered a stroke in recent years, raising questions about the health of the "Dear Leader" and the country's stability.

The meeting will be closely watched for signs as to whether the 68-year-old leader will choose his third and youngest son as his successor.

Tuesday's announcement from Pyongyang's state media agency came after weeks of speculation about North Korea's political future and offers a clue  about the plans of its secretive government.

According to the Korean Central News Agency, the ruling Workers' Party will meet September 28 to choose its "supreme leadership body," marking its first conference in 30 years.

The most important outcome of the meeting will be for Kim Jong Il to name his successor, says Denny Roy, a senior fellow at the East-West Center in Hawaii.

"The likely successor is the third son, Kim Jong Un, who's a young, up until now unheralded guy with very little accomplishments, but he has the correct bloodline," Roy says. "His authority, his legitimacy will rest on the fact that he is the grandson of Kim Il Sung, who is George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Moses to North Koreans."

Kim Jong Un, believed to be 27-years old, is the son of Kim Jong Il's third wife, who reportedly died of breast cancer in 2004. He has little formal military or political training, and analysts say it is unlikely he will be directly appointed to replace his father. Instead, he is expected to take a senior party position where he can be groomed by more senior officials.

Even if Kim Jong Un wants to reform North Korea, says Roy, it will be difficult to make changes with such oversight.

"It may well be that a very conservative group of senior officials with a lot of military influence will end up being the power behind the throne for some time to come because this new guy lacks the experience and the support of the elite to rule by himself.  And it will be difficult for him to bring about a dramatic change in policy, even if that was his inclination" Roy says.

Despite that, Seo Jae-Jin, president of the Korea Institute for National Unification, says Pyongyang's leadership will be under pressure to make changes from the current system, which he says is shaking the country's stability.

"North Korea failed in the currency reform policy last November. There was kind of a failure because it shook the whole economic system, and also, North Korea was contained from the international community totally. And also, the North Korean economy is really suffering. And also, the relationship with South Korea and the United States is very bad right now. So every policy failure is regarded as Kim Jong Il's himself policy failure."

Kim Jong Il rose to power in the 1970s and 80s but did not formally lead the country until Kim Il Sung, his father and the founder of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, died in 1994. Analysts say Kim Jong Il has sped up the succession process because of his poor health.

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