Seoul: North Korea will hold its biggest political meeting in 30 years next week, state media reported Tuesday, as observers watched for signs that the secretive regime's aging leader has chosen his son to succeed him.
Now 68, and reportedly in poor health two years after suffering a stroke, Kim Jong Il is believed to be bolstering his plan to take the Kim dynasty into a third generation by appointing his heir to top party posts at the Workers' Party convention.
Delegates will meet Sept. 28 to elect new party leaders, the official Korean Central News Agency said in a dispatch from Pyongyang.
The report did not explain why the meeting, initially set for "early September," had been postponed. North Korea has been struggling to cope with devastating flooding and a typhoon that killed dozens of people and destroyed roads, railways and homes earlier this month, according to state media.
Delegates across the country were appointed "against the background of a high-pitched drive for effecting a new great revolutionary surge now under way on all fronts for building a thriving nation with the historic conference," the KCNA report said.
State media have been building up the rhetoric ahead of the conference, the first major Workers' Party gathering since the landmark 1980 congress where Kim Jong Il, then 38, made his political debut, in an appearance seen as confirmation that he would eventually succeed his father, North Korea founder Kim Il Sung.
Kim Jong Il took over in 1994 when his father died of heart failure in what was communism's first hereditary transfer of power.
Now, he seems to be prepping his third and youngest son, Kim Jong Un, for a similar transition.
Observers are watching closely for signs of succession since Kim is said to be suffering from diabetes and a kidney ailment in addition to his reported stroke. There are concerns about instability in the nuclear-armed country if he were to die without anointing a successor.
Little is known about the son widely believed to be his father's favorite. Kim Jong Un, said to be in his late 20s and schooled in Switzerland, has never been mentioned in state media, and there are no confirmed photos of him as an adult.
South Korean intelligence officers believe Pyongyang has launched a propaganda campaign promoting the son, including songs and poems praising the junior Kim. North Korean soldiers and workers reportedly pledged allegiance to the son on his birthday in January.
The succession 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 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," 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."
Carter made a rare trip to Pyongyang last month to secure the release of an imprisoned American but didn't meet 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 known which party position Kim Jong Un might take in what would be his first known official job.
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.
First Published: Tuesday, September 21, 2010, 09:51