By Kim Young-jin
With leader Kim Jong-il’s health reportedly deteriorating, North Korea is set to convene a rare meeting of party representatives next month, when the world may get a long-awaited glimpse of the country’s next “Dear Leader.”
The gathering of the ruling Worker’s Party of Korea (WPK), expected sometime around the country’s founding day, Sept. 9, comes amid fears of crisis in the nuclear-armed state when Kim, widely believed to have suffered a stroke in 2008, eventually dies.
At the last gathering, which was 44 years ago in 1966, the county’s founder Kim Il-sung oversaw a large scale reorganization that cemented his dictatorship and planted seeds for a hereditary succession within the regime.
This time around, many experts expect Kim, 68, to name his son and presumed heir apparent, Kim Jong-un, to one of the country’s most influential posts ― the secretary for the organization and leadership of the WPK ― paving the way for a second dynastic power handoff.
“Whether or not the North officially publicizes it or not, the move will likely be understood as an official designation of Kim Jong-un as successor,” Dr. Park Young-ho, senior fellow of the government-affiliated Korea Institute of National Unification (KNU), told The Korea Times.
Jong-un remains a hazy figure even in the North, where his name has never been mentioned by state media. He is believed to be in his late 20s, having studied for a time in Switzerland and be proficient in English, French and German.
Little else is known for certain, and only a few boyish-looking photographs hint at his appearance.
Watchers believe that the elder Kim began grooming his youngest son for succession early last year. In June, Jang Song-thaek, the husband of Kim’s younger sister, Kyong-hui, was tapped as a vice chairman of the powerful National Defense Commission. He is widely thought to be shepherding the heir apparent into power.
According to Dr. Cheong Seong-chang, senior researcher at the Sejong Institute, the junior Kim has been busy building his status.
“Since last year, he has been heading the state secret police agency,” which keeps tabs on the power elite, he said. “Also, reports submitted to Kim Jong-il have been going through Jong-un.”
This has supposedly led to some lower level officials considering him to be on the same level as his father, Cheong said.
His status will likely take another major step forward at the meeting.
“The role of organizational secretary is the number two post within the party, second only to the Secretary General,” he said.
Cheong added Jong-un could also be nominated to the party’s military commission, marking his first title that justifies command of the military, and the Political Bureau, its top decision-making organ, he said.
In the history of North Korea, only Kim Il-sung ― Jong-un’s grandfather ― and Kim Jong-il have held these three posts simultaneously.
If the younger Kim does make his debut in September, it could come with more fanfare than when his father emerged at a party congress in 1980. When the party convened in 1966, thousands are said to have attended.
Underlying the buzz surrounding the meeting is concern that the power handoff could lead to volatility within the North and in Northeast Asia, where tensions are still high over the sinking of a South Korean warship. At the root of the problem is Jong-un’s inexperience.
His unproven status is a far cry from that of his father, who spent more than two decades preparing to take the reins and networking with top brass before taking power.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said earlier this month that the leader-in-waiting may order ― or have ordered ― provocative actions, such as the deadly ship sinking on March 26, in order "to earn his stripes with the North Korean military."
"My worry is that that's behind a provocation like the sinking of the Cheonan," he said. "So I think we're very concerned that this may not be the only provocation from the North Koreans."
Others fear Jang will not be strong enough to prevent a power vacuum from forming when Kim dies, setting the stage for a dangerous struggle among the political and military elite.
“When Kim is gone, some old hatreds and decades-old rivalries could resurface, and that might become destabilizing,” Andrei Lankov, a North Korea expert at Seoul’s Kookmin University, said.
A report by the government-affiliated KNU early this year painted a dark portrait of what North Korea could be in the aftermath of Kim’s death, featuring a military coup, riots, massacres and a mass exodus of refugees.
Volatility could occur even if Kim does successfully navigate the transfer, Park of the think tank said.
“The power succession could very well go smoothly, if Kim Jong-il stays alive long enough to see it through,” he suggested. “But after he dies, frictions could arise, and I’m not sure that the internal power structure can withstand them.”
Cheong of the Sejong Institute, however, downplayed the potential for feuding, arguing Jong-un’s power may already be consolidated, with an assist from unlikely sources.
“Ironically, the United States and South Korea may have helped Jong-un consolidate his power, as they have spoken frequently about sudden change in the North Korea in the form of regime collapse,” he said.
“For the elite, this would mean their power and privilege would disappear. So they have all the reason to support Jong-un and work for a smooth transition.”
Key players to watch
The meeting is expected to reorganize the party ranks with people close to the family. One figure to watch will be Jang Song-thaek, whose role as regent could make him the number two figure in a Kim Jong-un regime.
Speculation is high that he will be named to the Politburo standing committee, the highest body in the party of which Kim Jong-il is the only current member.
“This would give Jang influence in both, within the WPK and the NDC,” Yoo Ho-yeol, a North Korea expert at Seoul’s Korea University, said. “He will use his influence to ensure support for Jong-un in both.”
It would also establish Jang as the country’s number two in the case of Kim’s death or incapacitation, Cheong said.
Kim Yong-chun and O Kuk-ryol, who are vice ministers on the National Defense Commission as well, could also be named to the standing committee.
The moves would help the ailing Kim to delegate his workload, build up a wall of support around the heir apparent and revitalize the party.
“The WPK is in bad need of regrouping,” Yoo said. “Most of the members are dead or very old.”
Also bearing watching could be former Prime Minister Pak Pong-ju, who appears to be back in power after being ousted three years ago over a failed reform drive. Thought to be close to Jang, he was reportedly described as the first deputy director of the party’s Central Committee at a ceremony Friday.
For now, the lion’s share of the focus seems to be on the young man waiting in the wings of his father’s regime.
Still, Dr. Park warned those hoping for more insight into the potential next leader of North Korea may have to wait. “His actions will likely be carried out behind a shroud,” he said. “For the time being, people outside of North Korea will know little about Kim Jong-un.”
Korea Times intern Chah Kyoung-won contributed to this article. ― ED