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Kim Jong-il begins secret conference in North Korea, or does he?

Kim Jong-il is widely reported to be hosting a rare political conference in North Korea – but what is really happening remains a secret.

By Donald KirkCorrespondent / September 9, 2010

In this Aug. 27 photo released by China's official Xinhua news agency, Chinese President Hu Jintao, right, meets with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il in Changchun, in northeast China's Jilin province. Reports say Kim Jong Il is hosting a political conference in North Korea.

Ju Peng/Xinhua/AP Photo

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A veil of secrecy enshrouds the deliberations of delegates to a conference of the ruling Workers’ Party in Pyongyang that just about everyone except the North Koreans is saying has to do with the succession from Kim Jong-il to third son Kim Jong-un.

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So secret is the gathering that it’s not even certain the delegates are yet meeting. All that’s known for sure is that billboard-size posters have gone up in the North Korean capital extolling the “festive event” as one of “historic” importance.

Amid the speculation as to what the conference, the first since 1966, is about, is the possibility that it will produce nothing quite definable as “news.” Rather, it may be a chance for Kim Jong-il to engineer power shifts within the party in order to ensure his son’s ascent to heights for which he may not be prepared.

A reshuffle?

That’s pretty much the view of Andrei Lankov, a Russian who studied in Pyongyang years ago and now teaches at Kookmin University in Seoul, South Korea. In the two previous conferences of the Workers’ Party, in 1958 and 1966, he has written, the purpose was “to formalize the results of severe purges in the top leadership and ‘elect’ new leaders, free from ‘unmasked anti-party enemies.’ ”

In other words, Kim Jong-il may believe that housecleaning is needed to persuade possibly recalcitrant military people that son Jong-un, in his late 20s, is the man for the top job. Mr. Kim dominates such military people as chairman of the National Defense Commission, the country's real center of power.

Yoo Ho-yul, a professor at Korea University in Seoul, more or less agrees. As reported by Daily NK, a South Korean website that regularly reports on the North, Mr. Yoo believes “core organs of the party such as the politburo, secretariat, and central military commission will be reshuffled with personnel who can support the Kim Jong-un succession structure.”

Lee Gi-dong, talking at the same seminar with Yoo, subscribes to a growing view that Kim Jong-un will not show his face at the conference. “It is too early to publicize his existence because his revolutionary achievements are insufficient,” Daily NK quoted him as saying.

Speculation – including over gifts for delegates

There is plenty of speculation, though, about what Kim Jong-un is doing at the conference. Open Radio for North Korea, which broadcasts by short-wave into the North for two hours a day and often picks up news from informants in the North via cellphone, has said he’s “directing all the preparations for the party delegates’ meeting,” down to such details as “gifts for delegates and accommodations.”

The young man, according to Open Radio for North Korea, has assumed greater importance in conference planning than Kim Jong-il’s brother-in-law, Jang Song-thaek, widely seen as the country’s second most powerful figure. Jang, says Open Radio, is responsible only for “security” – not a small role but not center stage.

Open Radio notes that Kim Jong-il was in charge of preparations for the Workers’ Party’s last congress in 1980 – a much grander affair than a conference. The party congress, like the delegates’ conference, was seen as an important step on Kim Jong-il’s way to power after the death of his father, Kim Il-sung, in 1994.

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