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Rare Party Conference in N. Korea Raises Succession Questions

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A big meeting of North Korea's only political party could herald the beginning of the succession to a third generation of the Kim family in the reclusive Communist state.

Announcment airing on state television
North Korea's state media are promoting the meeting, expected to be held around September 6th, through public announcements, airing on state television.

The announcement declares: "Let us meaningfully greet the Workers' Party of Korea Representatives' Conference as an auspicious event that will forever shine in the annals of our party and the fatherland."

It will be a rare event. The last time a similar meeting convened was in 1980. And the previous party representatives' meeting, attended by thousands, occurred in 1966.

Power and tranisition

In the intervening years, power has increasingly rested with the military - not the party - under the firm rule of Kim Il Sung and, since his death in 1994, his son, Kim Jong Il.

Balbina Hwang is a visiting professor at the U.S. National Defense University. She says moving the spotlight in Pyongyang back to the party is significant.  "The fact that they seem to be shifting the center of power, possibly, away from the National Defense Commission and the military and toward the Workers Party signifies, I think, that there is a very substantial succession and transition underway, institutionally," she said.

Establlishing a family dynasty

Many North Korea analysts expect Kim Jong Il's third son, Kim Jong Un, who is believed to be about 27 years old, will be among those gaining a party Central Committee post.

His father was given high party posts at about the same age and was groomed for decades to take control of the country.

North Korea has cultivated a personality cult around its first leader, Kim Il Sung, who is called the Eternal President, and its current leader. North Korea scholars say it appears likely Kim Jong Il hopes to make sure his son builds support and power within the elite and military to ensure a smooth succession.

Ensuring a smooth succession

A senior research fellow at the Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul, Park Hyeong Jung, says the son might be named to oversee the "organization and guidance" department under the Secretariat.

Park says such a position would allow Kim Jong Un to make his own appointments, giving him an independent power base.

Park explains the younger Kim would then be able to examine and criticize every organization within the party, effectively allowing him to monitor and control the actions of the elite.

But Balbina Hwang thinks what emerges from the conference may not meet the expectations of outside analysts.  "I don't think we'll be satisfied with the outcome, meaning that, I don't think, they will necessarily make an announcement stating Kim Jong Un or specifying a specific position or title," she states.

She has little doubt Kim Jong Il is calling the shots, although Hwang predicts that before the son is firmly in power there will likely be some literal "bloodletting."

"There will be internal contestation over his legitimacy as the next ruler," Hwang says, "It's my personal belief that it is a done deal, in terms of what Kim Jong Il wants. And it is what Kim Jong Il is working very hard towards establishing."

She says the political jockeying as the son establishes his power could lead to purges and some executions among the North Korean elite.

Many North Korea watchers think time is running short for the country's absolute ruler. At the age of 68, he appears to be suffering from mounting health problems, and suffered a stroke two years ago.

That may have weakened his decision-making abilities in a country facing severe challenges: an economy near collapse, food shortages, tough international sanctions and, except for China, no significant remaining allies.

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