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Attendance of Kim Jong-un at North Korean conference uncertain

North Korea’s first Workers’ Party conference in 44 years is being hailed as 'historic.' Few know what will actually happen, even if heir apparent Kim Jong-un makes his public debut.

By Donald KirkCorrespondent / September 27, 2010

Party delegates from rural areas arrive to attend a meeting of the ruling Worker's Party of North Korea in Pyongyang September 26.

KCNA /Reuters

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Seoul, South Korea

Excitement surrounding the first North Korea’s Workers’ Party conference in 44 years is building to what analysts expect will be a climax Tuesday of rhetoric and celebrations in Pyongyang.

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Still, It seems few people know what actually will happen on an occasion that the North Korean media has said will be “historic.”

The most that Suh Jae-jean, president of the Seoul-based Korea Institute for National Unification, can surmise is that “it seems there is a policy shift in North Korean leadership” and “the politburo” of the party “will be reinforced.”

Mr. Suh offers that forecast as a hedge against widespread reports that the sole purpose of the conference is to promote 20-something Kim Jong-un as the chosen successor of his father, Kim Jong-il, who came to power in July 1994 after the death of his father, the long-ruling Kim Il-sung.

“There will be uncertainty,” says Suh, avoiding a specific forecast. “The political shift that’s coming will open a Pandora’s box. We should be fully prepared for what’s happening on the Korean peninsula.”

Suh sees North Korea submerged under problems ranging from the failing economy to the aftermath of the sinking of the South Korean Navy corvette the Cheonan in March. Pyongyang denied any role in the sinking, which a South Korean investigation blamed on a torpedo fired by a North Korean submarine, but Suh believes the episode has caused serious problems for the regime.

It’s “created a lot of tension with South Korea and the United States and even with China,” he says, even though China steadfastly refuses to endorse the South Korean investigation. “It’s brought a lot of shame from the international community.”

The sinking has also resulted in major South Korean and American military war games. This week, 10 United States and South Korean warships, including two American destroyers and a submarine, are staging antisubmarine exercises in the Yellow Sea near where the Cheonan went down.

The North Korean media denounce the exercises as “provocations” and “preparations for war,” but the need for a party conference suggests to analysts the dire straits into which the country is falling.

Whether Kim Jong-un will be introduced in public, whether he will be seen in a lineup of new members of the politburo or the party central committee, or whether his name will appear in the North Korean media seems to be anyone’s guess. He’s said to have been mentioned in a message that North Korea’s Foreign Ministry sent to North Korean diplomatic missions, and mid-level military officers are believed to have been told of his importance, but none of that guarantees his public debut.

Related story: 5 key people to watch in North Korea

“Maybe we will hear his name,” says Choi Jin-wook, a senior research fellow at the Korean Institute of National Unification. Mr. Choi is more confident about chances for seeing Kim Jong-un's father at the conference. “Kim Jong-il will show up tomorrow,” he says, even though the Dear Leader is reportedly suffering from a number of ailments.

Banners are flying high in Pyongyang proclaiming the conference, and a parade may be in the offing, according to Daily NK, an Internet service here, but there is more to resolve than just Kim Jong-un’s succession. Whether he makes an appearance, in fact, may not be nearly so important as concern over the meaning of the conference in terms of North Korea’s worsening economic and social problems.

“The system is weaker and more unstable,” says Lee Yoo-jin, professor at Sookmyung University here. “We are talking more and more about preparing for collapse of the regime.” Still, he adds, “As long as China supports North Korea, it will muddle through.”

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