- Associated Press - Tuesday, September 21, 2010

SEOUL (AP) — North Korea’s ruling communist party has finally set a date for its biggest convention in decades, an apparent indication that the regime may be ready to give the aging leader’s son a key position that will pave the way for his succession.

Delegates to the ruling Workers’ Party will meet in Pyongyang on Sept. 28 to select their “supreme leadership body,” the official Korean Central News Agency said Tuesday.

The conference will be the party’s first major gathering since the landmark 1980 congress where then 38-year-old Kim Jong-il made his own political debut with an appearance that confirmed he was in line to succeed his father, North Korea founder Kim Il-sung, as his nation’s leader.

Kim Jong-il took control of North Korea when his father died of heart failure in 1994 in what was communism’s first hereditary transfer of power. Now 68 and reportedly in poor health two years after suffering a stroke, Kim is believed to be prepping his third and youngest son, Kim Jong-un, for a similar father-to-son power transition.

But as with most things related to the so-called Hermit Kingdom nothing has been officially confirmed by North Korean officials. The regime is so secretive that outside observers often are left to read between the lines of vague state media dispatches and analyze satellite photos to divine what’s going on.

Analysts say Kim Jong-un may be quietly appointed to top party posts at next week’s convention in a key step in the succession process that will not be announced in state media.

“I believe North Korea has decided to give the successor an official title but not to make it public to the outside world” because publicizing the appointment could make Kim Jong-il a lame-duck leader, said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the Seoul-based University of North Korean Studies.

Tuesday’s state media report gave no explanation for why the much-anticipated convention, initially set for early September, had been delayed.

Analysts say internal debate among the party elite over whether to publicize Kim Jong-un’s political appointment to the outside world, as well as concern about recent devastation from flooding and a deadly typhoon, likely prompted the regime to postpone the nation’s biggest political meeting in 30 years.

Discussion over what economic reform the regime should announce during the party conference may also have contributed to the delay, said Kim Yong-hyun of Dongguk University.

Little is known about Kim Jong-un, said to be in his late 20s and schooled in Switzerland. He has never been mentioned in state media, and there are no confirmed photos of him as an adult.

He has two older brothers, Jong-nam and Jong-chol. But Kenji Fujimoto, who says he was Kim Jong-il’s sushi chef for more than 10 years, wrote in a memoir that it was the youngest who was most like his father, ruthless and competitive even as a child.

South Korean intelligence officers believe Pyongyang has launched a propaganda campaign promoting the son with songs and poems. He’s already being hailed as the “Young General” and “Our Commander,” with soldiers and workers pledging allegiance to the son on his birthday in January, South Korean media have said, citing unidentified sources in North Korea.

The process, however, is shrouded in secrecy, evidenced by the fact that South Korean officials didn’t even know how to spell the son’s name until last year.

Earlier this week, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter said Chinese Premier Wen Jiaobao told him that Kim Jong-il disputed the prospective promotion of his youngest son as a “false rumor” — underscoring the difficulty of reading the isolated regime.

“I was amazed when he made that statement,” Mr. Carter told the Associated Press in a phone interview Monday. “He said that Kim Jong-il made a flat statement that his succession story was a false Western rumor.”

Mr. Carter made a rare trip to Pyongyang last month to secure the release of an imprisoned American but didn’t meet Mr. Kim, who was in China at the time.

Next week, delegates are expected to elect new party leaders to fill spots left vacant for years. It’s not clear which party position Kim Jong-un might take in what would be his first known official job.

Mr. Yang said he’s likely to be elected organizational secretary, the No. 2 party job that his father won in 1973 in his path toward becoming the leader.

Kim Yong-hyun of Dongguk University said, however, the son was likely to take a working-level post since he is still so young.

Keen attention is also focused on Kim Jong-il’s only sister, Kim Kyong-hui, who in the past two years has been a frequent companion to the leader on field trips to army bases and factories. She currently serves as the political party’s department chief for light industry.

Her husband, Jang Song-thaek, has also been rising in stature. Mr. Jang was promoted in June to be vice chairman of the powerful National Defense Commission, making him the No. 2 official to Kim Jong-il on the regime’s top state organ.

The conference is being held amid preparations for the milestone 65th anniversary of the founding of the Workers’ Party on Oct. 10, improving relations with Seoul, and attempts by diplomats from neighboring nations to revive dormant six-nation disarmament negotiations on North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.

North Korea walked away from the talks last year in protest over U.N. Security Council condemnation for launching a long-range rocket, widely seen as a test of its missile technology.

Associated Press writer Jean H. Lee in Seoul and Greg Bluestein in Atlanta contributed to this report.

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