North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-il is expected to convene the first high-level conference of the ruling Workers’ Party in about 40 years amid widespread speculation that the world will finally get the answer to one great question:
If so, he would be the third in a line that began when Kim Jong-il’s father, the late "Great Leader" Kim Il-sung, took over at the time of the founding of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in 1948.
There’s no guarantee, however, that Kim Jong-il, who rose to full power after Kim Il-sung’s death in 1994, will confirm the speculation. For that matter, it’s not even totally certain the conference will convene this weekend, as widely reported.
What is known is that, yes, posters have been seen in Pyongyang announcing that delegates are gathering for an important party conference. All the rest – the notion that the party is reorganizing, that Kim Jong-un will appear, that he will accept a leading party position, is guesswork.
Guess who's missing from North Korea media
The fact that the conference is slated to convene at all, however, strikes analysts as critical for Kim Jong-il’s effort to pass the reins to his son. Still, analysts caution against jumping to conclusions for one basic reason: For all the speculation about Kim Jong-un as a rising star in North Korea, neither his name nor his photograph seem to have appeared in the North Korean media.
Nor is it even certain, as widely believed but not confirmed, that the son accompanied his father to northeastern China one week ago for a summit at which the elder Kim may or may not have introduced him to China’s President Hu Jintao.
“It’s important to recognize that Kim Jong-un’s name has never been mentioned once,” says L. Gordon Flake, executive director of the Mansfield Foundation in Washington. “The average North Korean has never heard of the son.”
Jumping to conclusions
Under those circumstances, a mere allusion to Kim Jong-un’s presence at the conference will be news. And a photograph of him in a line-up of newly appointed party officials would be an event of global significance considering the reported fragile health of his father.
Given Kim Jong-un’s anonymity, Mr. Flake sees the party conference as intended simply to acquaint important people with the son’s existence as the potential next in line.
“We’re not talking about succession,” says Flake, a long-time specialist on Korean affairs. “We’re talking about the beginning of the process," he says. “I would be equally surprised if they mentioned him or didn’t mention him at all.”
Flake is not even convinced that Kim Jong-il introduced Kim Jong-un to Hu Jintao or that the son accompanied his father on a five-day trip that also featured stops at sites where Kim Il-sung once lived and studied. “I would be very skeptical the North Koreans would trot out the son given the North Korean resistance to kowtowing to the Chinese,” he says. “This was a mission to make sure of Chinese support.”
Such considerations, however, hardly dispel the assumption that Kim Jong-un, who studied at a boarding school in Switzerland, was reputedly a fan of American basketball in his schooldays, and is believed to speak English and French as well as Korean, is on his way to the top.
He’s already reportedly gotten positions within the government and also within the defense establishment, the center of power, which his father controls as chairman of the national defense commission, and he’s reportedly accompanied his father on visits to farms and factories.
What about reports in the foreign media?
Reports, however, have appeared in foreign media. At least one photograph has popped up in a Japanese newspaper said to show the younger Kim at his father’s side. Analysts say, however, the picture may well have been that of a young factory manager.
The best that Scott Snyder, director of the Center for US-Korea Policy at the Asian Foundation, can say is that the party conference is “clearly related to the establishment of an institutional basis for a successful political transition.” After all, says Mr. Snyder, “any coronation of that type will not be sustainable without institutional support from components of the system.”
Snyder wonders, however, how long Kim Jong-un can remain unnamed and unknown to North Koreans. “What’s so odd about this situation is they were making clear references to Kim Jong-il in the 1970s,” he says. The North Korean media in that period referred to him as “the party center” without naming him. Snyder says then the meaning was clear to North Koreans. Like father, like son? “This is obviously a shorter process,” he says.