North Korea Faces Historic Change This Week

Kim Jong-Il is expected to anoint a successor

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On Tuesday, as The Washington Post's Chico Harlan reports, "North Korea will hold a Workers' Party conference, its biggest political meeting in 30 years." The meeting concerns anointing the successor to Kim Jong Il, the Hermit Kingdom's leader since 1998. The momentous meeting has North Korea observers, who spend their lives trying to follow and predict the politics of a deliberately untrackable regime, going into speculative overdrive.

  • Be Wary of Certainty: We Don't Really Know North Korea That's Harlan's message for those reading reports in the next few days. "Many experts in Seoul and Washington believe that North Korea will designate Kim Jong Il's youngest son, Kim Jong Eun, as the heir," he reports. He points out, though, that "weeks like this one ... leave outside analysts with the mandate to make bold pronouncements about North Korea's future, even if they're only making educated guesses." These "North Korea watchers" are banking their reputations, and their appraisal of one another, on successfully grasping "what could be one of the most important moments in North Korean history."
  • Dramatic Timing, as U.S. and South Korea Perform Joint Exercises, observes Donald Kirk at Asia Times Online. This week the countries are conducting "anti-submarine exercises in the Yellow Sea near where the South Korean corvette Cheonan was torpedoed and sunk in March." Kirk also explains that current leader "Kim Jong-il would want to hang on until the 100th anniversary on April 15, 2012, of the birth of Kim Il-sung, an event that promises to be about the biggest extravaganza in North Korean history, but just in case fate intervenes he will need the kid to be ready." In addition, he adds, though "there is no guarantee" that son Kim Jong-un will get a "party position" in preparation for his succession.
  • A Dangerous Moment "It has to be recognised," reads an editorial from British publication The Independent, "that transitions in closed one-party states are times of particular risk, and the more tightly sealed and dictatorial the regime, the greater the danger is likely to be." The editors hope, for the sake of North Korea's citizens, the handing over of power is peaceful.
  • If Mishandled, a Fiasco   Calling the attempt to extend a "family dictatorship" Kim Jong-il's "most daring move yet," David McNeill writes in The Independent that if he "mishandles the transition, observers fear the country could descend into chaos, sending millions of refugees spilling across the borders of China and South Korea." He notes that, so intense has been the secrecy in past decades, that "Pyongyang's citizens are aware a momentous change looms, but have no idea what the young heir looks like. ... Senior cadres have already seen photos of Jong-un in pre-conference booklets circulated last week, according to the Daily NK, an online source that tracks life beyond the Bamboo Curtain." There is one factor that might help Kim engineer a smooth transition, he notes, grimly: "the country's governing apparatus is a hollow shell after deaths and purges. The old five-man politburo now has just one member: Kim himself."
  • Don't Be Analyzing the Son--Look to the Brother-in-Law "It's 64-year-old Jang Song-taek, not the late-20-something Kim, that North Korean hands should be scrambling to unravel," contends Newsweek's Jerry Guo. He is "Kim Jong-il's right-hand man, groomed to be the regent for the younger Kim," since "the younger Kim cannot match his father's power base or charisma, particularly because he never played a role in the far-reaching military apparatus." Here's the "bad news for the West," explains Guo: "most security analysts believe that Jang will carry on Kim's erratic policies of confrontation, repression, and economic mismanagement." In fact, "some analysts believe he was the brains behind the March attack on the South Korean ship Cheonan, killing 46 sailors."
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