Kim son may step into limelight when North Korea holds biggest political gathering in 30 years

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korea is preparing its largest political meeting in 30 years, and leader Kim Jong Il is expected to appoint a son to a key Workers Party position in what would be the strongest sign yet of a succession movement in the secretive communist country.

The meeting would be the first major party gathering since the landmark 1980 congress where Kim was confirmed as the man who would take over from his father as the country's next leader.

History may repeat itself this week. Now 68 and believed to be in failing health, Kim is expected to appoint his youngest son to a key party post.

The exact date of the political gathering, set for "early September," has not been announced, but analysts have said it could open as soon as Monday. Local party officials have been busy electing delegates to the conference, according to dispatches in the North's state-run Korean Central News Agency.

While the conference is not a top-level party congress such as the one held in 1980, it is the biggest Workers' Party meeting since then and appears to have been convened to address urgent matters — quite likely a transfer of power, analysts said.

It's widely believed that Kim, who has ruled his nation of 24 million people with absolute authority since 1994, has been grooming his third and youngest son, Kim Jong Un, to succeed him since reportedly suffering a stroke in August 2008.

The regime has launched a propaganda campaign promoting the succession, including songs and poems praising the junior Kim, according to South Korea's spy agency. North Korean soldiers and workers reportedly pledged allegiance to the son on his birthday in January.

The process has been shrouded in secrecy.

There are no confirmed photos of Kim Jong Un, apart from one widely circulated by the foreign media of him as a boy. His name is never mentioned in state media, and though he is said to be in his late 20s, even his exact age remains unclear. When asked about him, North Korean government officials routinely deny knowing anything about the son.

He has two elder brothers, but a former sushi chef to Kim Jong Il wrote in a 2003 memoir the third son looks and acts just like his father and is the leader's favorite. The eldest, Kim Jong Nam, was favored to succeed his father until he was caught sneaking into Japan on a fake passport to visit a Disney resort in 2001. Kim Jong Il considers the middle son, Kim Jong Chul, too "girlish" to lead, the sushi chef wrote in a book written under the pen name Kenji Fujimoto.

The secrecy is reminiscent of Kim Jong Il's own rise in communism's first hereditary transfer of power.

Kim Jong Il was 31 when he won a key post in the ruling Workers' Party in 1973 — an appointment seen as a key step in the path to succeeding his father, North Korea founder Kim Il Sung, as the nation's leader. His position as successor was made public at the party congress in 1980.

That historic succession took place when Kim Il Sung died of heart failure in 1994.

Similarly, the young son is expected to step into the limelight at this month's political gathering of local representatives by assuming his first public party role, analysts say.

"It's almost certain that he will get a crucial party post," said Cheong Seong-chang of the private Sejong Institute in South Korea, a North Korea expert who has followed the succession issue closely for years. "If he doesn't get a post, that will be news."

What position and whether it will be disclosed by state media remains to be seen. Analysts said North Korea may well keep the son's appearance and position under wraps.

Some believe he will be granted the same post his father took 37 years ago: party secretary authorized to supervise party members and appoint top party, government and military officials, and he may be elected to the powerful "politburo" of the party's Central Committee as well.

Others don't think Kim Jong Il will give the son a high-profile job quite yet since he is still young and needs time to learn about state affairs.

"Jong Un would be given a working-level job that would give him room to take measure of the party's operations," said Prof. Kim Yong-hyun at Seoul's Dongguk University.

However, Kim Jong Un may not have the benefit of two decades of training that his father had. Kim Jong Il, said to be suffering from diabetes and a kidney ailment, has appeared thinner and grayer in recent appearances.

"Another hereditary succession will be completed in 2012," predicted Ha Tae-keung, chief of Open Radio for North Korea, a Seoul-based station that claims to have an extensive network of contacts inside North Korea.

The year 2012 is the centenary of Kim Il Sung's birth, and the date already is being promoted as a significant milestone in North Korean history.

After the conference, the son can be expected to assume other top jobs one by one, including supreme commander of North Korea's 1.2 million-member army and general secretary of the Workers' Party, analysts said. Kim Jong Il also took up those positions in the years before taking over as leader.

Cheong said he expects the son's name to appear in state media from the first day of the meeting, which he said would be aimed at dispelling questions at home and abroad about Kim Jong Un's status as heir apparent.

However, Prof. Yang Moo-jin of the University of North Korea Studies in Seoul said the son's presence will be kept out of official dispatches. Publicly presenting the son as the successor would make Kim Jong Il a lame-duck leader, he said.

North Korea can't afford any more political damage right now, he said.

Pyongyang is already suffering under widespread international sanctions for conducting nuclear and missile tests, and its economic woes are feared worse following a botched currency redenomination in November and recent flooding in the northwest.

The regime is also grappling with international pressure to come clean over the deadly sinking of a South Korean warship that killed 46 sailors — an attack Pyongyang flatly denies engineering.

Provocative acts such as the sinking of the Cheonan and the firing of artillery near the sea border with South Korea have been seen by some as decisions pinned to the young future leader to build his political clout.

However, the world can expect a new era in the impoverished, nuclear-armed nation once he takes power, Ha said.

"He'll be provocative until he feels his leadership is bolstered, but he will eventually choose the path for openness and reform," he said. "There is no other option."

(This version corrects year to 1973 in graf 12, and 37 years graf 17)