North Korea will hold its first party congress in 30 years next week, setting the stage for a possible power transfer in the Stalinist state from Kim Jong Il to his youngest son.
The Workers Party of Korea will meet Sept. 28 in the capital of Pyongyang to choose “its supreme leadership body,” the official Korean Central News Agency reported today. Kim will attend the meeting as a delegate, KCNA said.
The party congress is significant because it’s taking place as Kim’s failing health forces him to pass on leadership responsibilities, U.S. and South Korean officials have said. The last such gathering in 1980 secured Kim’s position as heir to his father, North Korean founder Kim Il Sung.
“That succession was well planned and the son was groomed for a lengthy period, giving the regime time to shore up his legitimacy,” said Jeff Kingston, head of Asian Studies at Temple University’s Tokyo campus. “This succession has been poorly planned and hastily arranged.”
The regime may also use the congress to announce new policies to reinvigorate the country’s faltering economy, which was dealt a further blow this year after floods wiped out crops and damaged houses. The changes could include policies that signal an economic warming to South Korea.
“As North Korea’s economic situation is not good and they are having a food shortage amid a flood, there’s a possibility that new policies will be proposed as part of North Korea’s new line of policy for economic development,” said Kim Yong Hyun, professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University in Seoul.
‘Open the Gate’
North Korea restored economic reformist Pak Pong Ju to its leadership in August, Yonhap News reported at the time. The government has focused recent propaganda around the target to “open the gate to a great, prosperous and powerful nation in 2012,” the centenary of Kim Il Sung’s birth.
North Korea said on June 26 it would hold the congress in early September. The missed deadline led to speculation of internal divisions over who should head the party, as well as reports that the two months of floods had prevented delegates from gathering.
Kim may not publicly declare his son Kim Jong Un as heir if it weakens his grip on power amid reports of his ailing health, said Yang Moo Jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies.
Kim, 68, has already named his youngest son as successor, the Tokyo Shimbun newspaper reported on Sept. 19, citing a photograph of an official ruling party document. Other media have carried similar reports.
Little is known outside North Korea about Jong Un, who may be in his late 20s. He attended the International School of Berne in Switzerland, according to media reports, including the Seoul-based Dong-A Ilbo newspaper.
The party congress was delayed because Kim hadn’t fully recovered from his five-day trip to China last month, Seoul-based YTN news channel reported on Sept. 13, citing a South Korean intelligence official it didn’t name. Open Radio for North Korea, a Seoul group with contacts in the communist country, carried a similar report the same day.
In a speech to Chinese leaders during his visit to northeast China last month, Kim praised the development of the region, saying that “all the changes the area has undergone go to show that the validity” of the Chinese Communist Party’s policies. China’s economic growth began to accelerate after the country experimented with market-oriented economic policies. North Korea, which until the 1970s was more developed than both China and South Korea, has stagnated.
Since Kim reportedly suffered a stroke in 2008, there have been varying reports of his declining health. The latest picture of Kim from a meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao in August published in South Korean newspapers showed his hair was thinner than when he was last seen in May. Television images of Kim during his May trip to China showed he was limping and dragging his left foot.
Kim’s efforts to prove his control of the government and ensure succession may have led to an increase in the country’s bellicose behavior, according to a South Korean official who briefed reporters last year.
North Korea walked out of international talks aimed at dismantling its nuclear program in April 2009 and launched a ballistic missile technically capable of reaching Alaska before conducting a second nuclear test on May 25 the same year.
The North Korean leader signaled to Hu during his last trip to China in late August that he is willing to resume six-party talks to dismantle his country’s nuclear weapons program, China’s state-run Xinhua News Agency reported Aug. 30. The forum, which also includes Japan, the U.S., Russia and South Korea, hasn’t met since December 2008.
Kim’s regime on Aug. 27 freed a U.S. citizen imprisoned for seven months for an illegal border crossing after former President Jimmy Carter flew to Pyongyang. South Korea’s Red Cross on Aug. 31 offered North Korea 10 billion won ($8.5 million) of food, medicine and other goods for flood victims.