- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 29, 2010

SEOUL (AP) — Kim Jong-il, North Korea’s ailing leader, has laid the groundwork for a transition of power to his youngest son, but it remains to be seen if the reclusive, nuclear-armed regime will soften its combative stance toward the international community.

The impoverished nation long has used both carrots and sticks to get what it wants: offering dialogue and promises to dismantle its nuclear program to get aid, and when it runs into resistance, conducting missile and atomic tests and threatening to destroy rival South Korea.

Analysts see little prospect of that strategy changing, although some speculate that Pyongyang could seek a period of calm — after a turbulent past two years — to minimize confrontation with the outside world as it enters a time of transition in its top ranks.

This week’s elevation of Kim Jong-il’s youngest son, Kim Jong-un, as a four-star general and to a key position in the ruling communist party at a political convention signaled that the little-known 20-something is on track to eventually succeed his 68-year old father, believed to have suffered a stroke in 2008.

Underscoring Kim Jong-il’s intent to consecrate his family’s dominance and usher the dynasty into a third generation was the promotion of his 64-year-old sister, Kim Kyong-hui, to the same military rank and into the party’s political bureau. She is married to another key party figure, Jang Song-thaek, who holds the No. 2 position in the powerful National Defense Commission, led by Kim Jong-il.

Those family figures could help smooth the transition to Kim Jong-un, who remains a virtual unknown — unmentioned even in North Korean state media until this week. He is believed to be in his late 20s, have studied in Switzerland and have a fondness for NBA basketball.

The North Korean media provided no hints of what kinds of discussions may have taken place at Tuesday’s party convention, the country’s biggest political gathering since the 1980 anointing of Kim Jong-il as successor to his father, the nation’s founder, Kim Il-sung, who died in 1994.

The front page of the main Rodong Sinmun newspaper Wednesday featured a large photo of Kim Jong-il, according to footage of a newsstand from broadcaster APTN in Pyongyang. The paper also carried photographs and biographical details of senior officials appointed at the party’s conference.

“The party meeting was a historic event, and the Korean people highly acclaim our respected Gen. Kim Jong-il as general secretary of the Workers’ Party of Korea,” Pyongyang resident Kim Song-guk said, according to the footage.

The North’s Korean Central News Agency said Wednesday that Kim Jong-il had a photo session with newly elected key central figures in the party leadership and conference delegates, including Kim Jong-un and Kim Kyong-hui. It was not clear if any photos of the event were released.

Gauging what is happening in the opaque regime is notoriously difficult, but what is clear is that North Korea faces huge problems: chronic poverty that leaves it reliant on foreign aid to feed its 24 million people, and a stricken economy with apparently unresolved questions about whether to embrace or shun free markets.

Despite its impoverishment, North Korea has active nuclear and missile programs that are the key focus of security concerns in Northeast Asia. The United States has more than 20,000 troops in South Korea, which remains in a technical state of war with the North since their 1950-53 conflict ended with a truce and not a formal peace treaty.

Pyongyang has used its military assets — and its unpredictability — to get what it wants internationally in the past — a strategy it is likely to stick to.

“The best way to squeeze aid from the outside world is to use contradictions between the great powers and a bit of nuclear blackmail,” said Andrei Lankov, an expert on North Korea at Seoul’s Kookmin University. “This is absolutely a rational policy, and it has worked quite fine for the last few decades, and I don’t see that they would ever consider changing it in the near future.”

Yoo Ho-yeol, a North Korea expert at Korea University in Seoul, said he believes no major changes are in store, as “Kim Jong-il remains undiminished,” but he added that the country likely will enter into a period of seeking to tone down tensions in order to focus on stabilizing the succession.

“They’ll think it’s more urgent to smoothly settle down the succession process rather than having another adventure,” Mr. Yoo said.

North Korea has been embroiled in a standoff with South Korea over the March sinking of a South Korean naval vessel that killed 46 sailors. An international investigation led by Seoul concluded a North Korean torpedo was to blame, although Pyongyang denies it.

Mr. Yoo predicted the North would seek to improve ties with the United States and return to six-party talks aimed at getting the North to dismantle its nuclear programs. Pyongyang pulled out of the talks — which also include South Korea, Japan, Russia, China and the United States — after an international uproar last year over a suspected long-range missile test it conducted, which was followed by the country’s second nuclear test.

North Korea already has expressed its willingness to rejoin the disarmament talks, but Washington has said the North must first take specific moves to demonstrate its sincerity.

“The North wants to improve relations with the U.S., as it is a must for it to revive its economy,” said Chon Hyun-joon, a research fellow at the state-run Korean Institute for National Unification in Seoul. “But it won’t make a unilateral surrender, and it wants to get concessions in return for positive steps.”

North Korea has set an objective of achieving the status of a “powerful and prosperous nation” by 2012, the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il-sung.

But its economy has hit the skids since the collapse of the Soviet Union robbed it of a key source of aid and ensuing economic mismanagement and natural disasters made conditions worse.

It desperately needs reform, but Mr. Lankov said the North Korean leadership knows that path is risky and thus will continue doing what it does best: alternating between threats and concessions to secure economic benefits to help shore up the regime.

“It’s rational politics because they cannot afford Chinese-style reform,” he said. “In their particular case, reforms are likely to lead to instability, domestic instability.”

Associated Press writers Jean H. Lee, Kwang-tae Kim, Hyung-jin Kim and Sangwon Yoon contributed to this report.




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