North Korea Braces for Lil' Kim's Debut

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Members of the Workers' Party of Korea arrive at Pyongyang station on Sept. 26 to attend the party conference. The event, which started on Sept. 28, is expected to set the stage for a transfer of power from Kim Jong Il to his son Kim Jong Un

This story has been updated

The grand gathering of North Korea's party faithful that was supposed to have been held earlier this month in Pyongyang — and then, mysteriously, wasn't — finally got under way on Tuesday. Whether it was like a Broadway show that had to work out its kinks in the North Korean equivalent of New Haven before heading to the (not so) bright lights of Pyongyang, or was simply delayed by severe flooding, no one in the outside world seems to know. But now even the regime's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) mouthpiece has acknowledged that thousands of delegates from the Workers' Party of Korea (WPK) streamed into the nation's capital and did what comes naturally: gathering before the palace that enshrines the remains of Kim Il Sung, the father of the country (and of its leader), and bowing. This, North Korea watchers say, means that for just the third time since 1966, a full-blown congress of the ruling party has commenced — and that means something big is likely happening in Pyongyang.

Most North Korea watchers expected "Dear Leader" Kim Jong Il to use the event — with all the attendant hoopla, including, according to a South Korean group, "the largest military parade" in North Korean history — to formally position his third son, Kim Jong Un, as his heir apparent. They believe Kim took a surprise visit to China in late August for the express purpose of solidifying his dynastic intent, in effect informing Beijing of his plan. And state television said that Kim Jong Un has been appointed a general, which is his first mention by name in state media, with his nomination as a four-star general coming despite a perceived lack of military experience. (Kim Jong Il's sister, Kim Kyong Hui, was also named a four-star general, according to the state-run KCNA.) The television announcer was quoted as saying a "crucial" development was under way but gave no further details. As for Kim Jong Il, he was re-elected as leader, in the words of state television, as an "expression of absolute support and trust," with "the unanimous will and wishes" of North Koreans.

But if arranging a dynastic succession is, indeed, the purpose of the first WPK congress since 1980, then it is believed that the young Kim will probably be elevated to two critical positions. For one, he could be named as a party secretary with the WPK's Central Committee, a position that the highest ranking defector from the North, Hwang Jang Yop, has testified carries enormous influence. The Dear Leader himself had been appointed as a party secretary to the Central Committee at the 1980 party congress to smooth his own path to power, and a similar appointment for his 28-year-old son this week would signal Kim Jong Il's intention to continue the dynasty that has ruled North Korea since its creation six decades ago.

The second post to which the young Kim may be elevated is membership of the country's Central Military Commission. In the bizarre logic of North Korea's personality-cult politics, Kim Jong Un has for some time been "perceived as 'General Kim,' or the 'Young General,'" despite having had his first official military title, that of general, announced just a day before the Congress was due to begin, says Cheong Seong Chang, senior fellow at the Sejong Institute, a Seoul think tank.

Kim Jong Un, in fact, appears to hold no qualifications or experience for a senior leadership position in the destitute, yet strategically vital, country — all he is, for better or worse, is the son of Kim Jong Il. That's why another key indicator of what to expect in North Korea is any change in the position of the young Kim's regent and maternal uncle, Jang Sung Taek. He is already the head of the party's administration department, and could conceivably be promoted along with his young charge. Then again, it's not clear that the boy's protector necessarily requires a formal promotion.

Most North Korea watchers believe Kim Jong Un's eventual succession to the job now occupied by his ailing, 68-year-old father is a done deal. Most, but not all. Trying to figure out the internal politics of the regime in Pyongyang makes Cold War–era Kremlinology seem easy. That's why former President Jimmy Carter created a stir recently with a posting on the website of his nonprofit Carter Center suggesting the incumbent had dismissed the conventional wisdom over his succession. Carter noted that during a recent trip to China that coincided with a visit there by Kim Jong Il, he had been told by Prime Minister Wen Jiabao that the North Koreans were ready to rejoin six-party nuclear-disarmament talks. Continued Carter: "He surprised us by quoting the [North Korean] leader regarding the prospective promotion of his son, Kim Jong Un, as 'a false rumor from the West.'"

China's leaders are the only foreign government thought to be remotely plugged into what Kim Jong Il is thinking. Could it be possible that the whole Kim Jong Un meme is, in fact, a "false rumor," and that the purpose of this week's meeting in Pyongyang is something else entirely? Alas, this being North Korea, anything's possible. It literally took years for word to seep out that Kim Il Sung had positioned Kim Jong Il to be his successor. That, however, was a time when there were few refugees from the North living in either South Korea or China, and well before the era of cell phones. Now, information trickles out much more quickly. If Kim Jong Un is in fact the likely successor in the unenviable job of running that benighted country, this time we may find out sooner rather than later.

— With reporting by Stephen Kim / Seoul