North Korea celebrates nation's founding amid speculation Kim Jong Il will hand power to son
SEOUL, South Korea – SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korea celebrated its 62nd anniversary Thursday with odes to supreme leader Kim Jong Il and pilgrimages to his late father's statue amid hints that a political meeting believed aimed at promoting his son as successor is imminent.
There is widespread speculation that Kim will use the conference to give his third and youngest son, Kim Jong Un, a key Workers' Party position as part of plans to extend the family dynasty to a third generation.
Kim Jong Il, known as the "Dear Leader" in North Korea's cult of personality, himself took over leadership after his father, North Korea's founder Kim Il Sung, died of heart failure in 1994 — communism's first hereditary transfer of power.
The 68-year-old Kim may have wanted to name his successor in 2012, the centenary of his father's birth. But a reported stroke in 2008 may have sped up the process, with his little-known third son emerging as the likely heir. Kim Jong Il is also said be suffering from diabetes and a kidney ailment.
State media reported Monday that Workers' Party delegates were gathering in Pyongyang to elect new leaders in what would be North Korea's first major political conference in 30 years.
Since then, there has been no official confirmation that the meeting — which state media slated for "early September" — had begun. North Korea watchers say it may have been postponed due to Kim Jong Il's health problems or recent flooding that disrupted transportation.
However, a senior official at a pro-Pyongyang association in Tokyo said Wednesday the meeting would take place "in a few days."
"The leadership and function of the Workers' Party would be further strengthened through this historic" conference, Ho Jong Man, chief vice chairman of the Central Standing Committee of Korean Residents in Japan, said at a reception, according to a copy of his speech provided by his office.
The association has close ties with Pyongyang, though it does not work for the North Korean government.
A Pyongyang resident hinted to broadcaster APTN that the conference hadn't yet begun.
"We are significantly commemorating the 62nd anniversary ... ahead of the meeting of Workers' Party representatives," Ri Pyong Song told APTN.
Ri was among the legions of North Koreans who paid their respects to Kim Il Sung at the hillside spot where a giant statue of the country's founder, known as the "Great Leader," overlooks Pyongyang.
Soldiers in uniforms and neatly dressed citizens, some wearing traditional Korean clothes, offered bouquets of flowers and bowed before the statue, APTN footage showed.
North Korea also held dancing parties for young people in Pyongyang and other areas across the country as part of the anniversary celebrations, according to the official Korean Central News Agency.
State TV broadcast patriotic songs calling for loyalty to Kim Jong Il throughout Thursday, while the main Rodong Sinmun newspaper urged the North's 24 million people to unite behind Kim.
North Korea has launched a propaganda campaign promoting Kim Jong Un, including songs and poems praising the young man, South Korea's spy agency said.
Little is known about him, including the exact year of his birth and what he looks like. He is believed to have studied in Switzerland during middle school and is thought to be in his 20s.
A former sushi chef for Kim Jong Il wrote in a 2003 memoir that Jong Un as a child looked and acted just like his father, was competitive and aggressive as well as a keen fan of American basketball.
Jong Un has two older brothers: Jong Chol, 29, and half brother Jong Nam, 39.
South Korean defense officials have said they are preparing for any situation that might arise if North Korea's succession doesn't go smoothly.
The two Koreas were divided following World War II. North Korea invaded the South in 1950, triggering a devastating three-year war that ended in an armistice, not a peace treaty, leaving the peninsula still officially in a state of war.
Associated Press Writer Tomoko A. Hosaka in Tokyo contributed to this report.