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North Korean Congress May Discuss Kim’s Successor

North Korea is preparing its biggest political gathering in 30 years, drawing parallels with the 1980 summit that ensured Kim Jong Il’s succession amid speculation he will transfer power to his youngest son.

Delegates from the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea held meetings in the past week ahead of the congress to pledge loyalty to Kim, according to reports published by the official Korean Central News Agency. Troops and tanks have been deployed near Pyongyang to plan military parades to mark the party gathering, South Korea’s Defense Ministry said Aug. 24.

Kim, 68, last week made his second trip this year to China in what analysts said was an effort to win the endorsement of his closest ally for a power transfer to his son, Kim Jong Un. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao lauded the congress as “a political event of great significance,” KCNA reported yesterday.

“The fact that Kim has visited China twice this year and so shortly before the meeting indicates that he has sought support for his upcoming decisions,” said Rudiger Frank, professor of East Asian Economy and Society at the University of Vienna. “These will have to do with succession, both directly and indirectly, as this is the most pressing issue for North Korean domestic politics at the moment.”

Kim signaled to Chinese President Hu Jintao during his trip that he is willing to resume six-party talks to dismantle North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, China’s state-run Xinhua News agency reported this week. The forum, which also includes Japan, the U.S., Russia and South Korea, hasn’t met since December 2008.

Mystery Son

Little is known outside North Korea about Kim Jong Un, who may be in his late 20’s. KCNA has never mentioned the son by name and China didn’t say whether he accompanied his father during the most recent visit as speculated by South Korean media.

North Korea said on June 26 that a party congress would convene in early September to elect “its highest leading body,” without specifying dates. The meeting will be held on Sept. 4-7, Good Friends, a Seoul-based rights group, which claims to have sources in the communist country, said on its website this week.

The congress may be aimed at “the reorganization of its leadership structure,” according to South Korea’s Unification Ministry. Kim cemented his position as successor to his father, North Korean founder Kim Il Sung, in the 1980 meeting, getting elected to key party posts.

‘Military Power’

Kim has built North Korea into “a socialist military power which no enemy dares provoke,” Myong Son Yong, secretary of the party’s Pyongyang City Committee said at a Aug. 28 meeting, according to KCNA. Military representatives to the party pledged “undisputed trust in him and transparent loyalty to him,” KCNA reported on Aug. 27.

Speculation of a power transfer comes as North Korea becomes increasingly dependent on China to improve its faltering economy, a key element of its goal to become a “strong and prosperous country” by 2012. North Korea’s economy shrank 0.9 percent to 24.7 trillion won ($21 billion) in 2009, with trading falling 11 percent, after the United Nations toughened sanctions against the country for its second nuclear test in May last year, according to the Bank of Korea in Seoul.

China, host of the six-party nuclear talks, is also spearheading efforts to lure South Korea and the U.S. back to engaging North Korea, sending its special envoy for the Korea peninsula affairs, Wu Dawei, to the countries. South Korea, backed by the U.S., refused to resume the disarmament negotiations after it accused North Korea of torpedoing one of its warships in March, which killed 46 sailors.

Six-Party Talks

“China is most concerned about maintaining a measure of control over North Korea and thus the future possibilities for the Korean peninsula,” said William Callahan, professor of international politics at the University of Manchester. “Pushing for the reconvening of the six-party talks is part of China’s quest for a loose control over regional politics.”

Improving economic difficulties is essential for Kim to ensure an orderly handover of leadership, said Frank at the University of Vienna.

“The various sanctions by the West, however justified they might be, come at a strategically bad time: they leave North Korea even fewer options and drive it further into the arms of the Chinese,” he said.

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