- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 26, 2010

North Korea’s ruling Workers’ Party is expected to unveil Kim Jong-il’s third son as the successor to the ailing “Dear Leader” at a rare meeting in Pyongyang on Tuesday.

Analysts and officials knowledgeable about the country readily concede the secretive North is tough to read. Speculation is rife, however, that Mr. Kim’s third son, Kim Jong-un, will be elevated to a position that will put him in line to succeed his father.

Kim Jong-un is 28 years old, and little is known about him besides the fact that he studied in Switzerland and has no political experience.

Victor Cha, who served as director of Asian affairs in the administration of President George W. Bush, said Kim Jong-un could get some sort of formal position at Tuesday’s meeting — either in the Workers’ Party or in the powerful National Defense Commission (NDC), which will mark the beginning of the transition process.

“The safest bet is to assume that it will lead to the assigning of positions that consolidate the current power structure,” said Mr. Cha, who holds the Korea chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Kim Jong-il’s brother-in-law and close ally, Jang Sung-taek, who was promoted to the No. 2 position in the NDC this summer, likely will be another beneficiary of this process.

Mr. Jang is expected to serve as regent should Kim Jong-il step down or die while Kim Jong-un burnishes his resume.

The United States and North Korea’s neighbors are watching developments in Pyongyang this week; however, a changing of the guard is unlikely to signal a major shift in relations.

Jae Ku, director of the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, said Kim Jong-un and Mr. Jang are no different from Kim Jong-il. “They won’t do anything that may jeopardize or bring the whole system down,” he said.

Mr. Cha agreed there is nothing in North Korea’s behavior that hints at a positive change.

“The problem about the North Korean system … is, even if you have enlightened leaders, it is a bad system, so it makes bad leaders, and it is very difficult to change that,” he said.

The conference is the first of its kind in three decades. Previous ones were used by Kim Jong-il’s father, Kim Il-sung, to consolidate his grip on power and elevate his son.

Kim Kwang-jin, a former North Korean official who defected, said the meeting will be a turning point.

“We can see the direction of the power transition and the major players, which might affect greatly North Korea’s life in the coming years,” Mr. Kim said.

“Jang’s role as a regent will be very important, and a lot more about him than Kim Jong-un is known to the outside, since he has traveled frequently, visited Seoul, was deeply involved in two South-North summits, very active in fundraising, economic affairs and construction, and as a steersman of all North Korea’s security agencies,” he added.

Kim Jong-il’s fragile health is likely a big factor behind the meeting. He suffered a stroke in 2008 and reportedly is undergoing dialysis and treatment for diabetes.

“He wants to get some substantial movement on the succession while he is still alive, coherent and in control,” Mr. Ku said.

However, former President Jimmy Carter, who recently met Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, said Kim Jong-il told Mr. Wen that the idea that a succession is under way was a “false rumor from the West.”

Selig Harrison, the author of “Korean Endgame,” who has visited North Korea several times, said the focus on Kim Jong-un is misplaced.

“North Korea is not a one-man show,” said Mr. Harrison, director of the Asia program at the Center for International Policy.

“The son’s presence in any future leadership would be needed in a ceremonial sense, perhaps more than that, but to treat it as if you have a one-man show in North Korea is quite inaccurate and doesn’t reflect what is a more complicated situation in which the armed forces are the key factor around which other personalities revolve,” he added.

Mr. Harrison said the thing to look for in the meeting is whether steps are taken toward economic reform.

Kim Jong-il’s recent visits to China, the North’s sole benefactor, have been connected to such reform.

Hard-line elements in Pyongyang resisted his plans, but the hard-liners were discredited following the recent currency revaluation fiasco in which a sizable portion of the emerging middle class lost a lot of money.

U.S. officials declined to comment on the Workers’ Party meeting and linked a resumption of dialogue with the North to improved ties between Pyongyang and Seoul.

“We are looking for evidence that North Korea now regards the possibility of negotiations seriously,” a State Department official said on the condition of anonymity. “We are not interested in negotiations just for the sake of talking. We want talks that lead to specific and concrete results.”

Mr. Cha said six-party talks will not resume until the North apologizes for the sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan in May.

An international investigation found the North was behind an attack on the ship in which 46 sailors lost their lives.

The Obama administration is pursuing a two-track North Korean policy aimed at deterrence and counterproliferation.

“The third leg of the stool is the diplomatic track, and there hasn’t been much on the diplomatic track largely because of the nuclear tests and then the Cheonan incident,” Mr. Cha said.

“The ball is in the North’s court, and it’s pretty clear what they need to do,” he said. “I think there is in the future a diplomatic track, but it is entirely up to the North to decide whether it wants to come back to that track.”

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