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Rare N. Korean gathering might set up handover of power

From John Vause, CNN
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A new leader for North Korea?
  • Kim Jong Il may be preparing to pass the torch to his youngest son
  • N. Korean leaders have announced a rare meeting this month
  • Analysts say the question is whether government and military leaders will accept the son
  • Kim is 68 and has been in poor health since suffering a stroke

(CNN) -- North Korea's political leaders are expected to meet this month in a rare gathering, possibly to set the stage for the handover of power from Kim Jong Il to his youngest son.

"He may not be unveiled as Kim Jong Il's successor. That may come later. But if he does, for example, become a member of the Central Committee, then we know things are in process," said Richard Bush, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank.

The Korean Workers' Party last convened its delegates more than four decades ago. State media in the secretive North have said the party will assemble in early September to discuss policies, strategies and tactics.

The meeting will be "held under the wise leadership of our general to meet the demand of our revolutionary development," according to state-run television.

"This conference is also for the purpose of strengthening the party, as well as raising the ability and role of the leadership, which will be of great significance to spread the magnificent future of our country and people."

Video: North Korea after Kim Jong-Il

Little is known about prospective heir Kim Jong Un. It's not even clear whether he holds an official position, yet he's widely expected to succeed his father.

"Equally unclear is whether the entrenched apparatus in the North Korean ruling party, in the North Korean military -- particularly veterans in their 60s and 70s and so on -- will accept somebody who's not even 30 as the new leader," said Mike Chinoy, the author of "Meltdown: The Inside Story of the North Korean Nuclear Crisis."

Kim Jong Il served a 20-year apprenticeship at his father's side. With him now 68, and in poor health after suffering a stroke, analysts think succession plans have accelerated.

"If he can give his son a few years to consolidate his power, build the network of relationships within the security apparatus, the military, the party, that will augur well for a smooth succession," Chinoy said. "If he dies sooner than that, there will be much more uncertainty."

Kim's most recent trip to China, in August, might have been partly to build support for his son.

North Korea has few other allies, and its authoritarian regime needs China's support to hang on.

The North has poured money into its nuclear and missile programs and its military, while its people have gone hungry.

China is North Korea's biggest trading partner and is its main source of food and arms, helping the North to withstand crushing international economic sanctions aimed at halting its nuclear program.

"If China can help North Korea stay afloat, then it makes it easier for the new regime to pursue status quo policies," Bush said.

In June, North Korea dramatically juggled its leadership. The moves appeared to pave the way for Kim Jong Un.

Jang Song Thaek, Kim Jong Il's brother-in-law and long thought to be Kim's right-hand man, was promoted to vice chairman of the powerful National Defense Commission at the Supreme People's Assembly, the communist nation's parliament, according to the state-run Korean Central News Agency.

Jang's appointment was crucial, according to Kim Sung-han, a professor at Korea University in Seoul, because he's seen as providing a support network for Kim Jong Un.

Not only is Jang family; he's a top official in the military as vice chairman of the National Defense Commission.

Jang plays a key role as "liaison between the party and the military," Kim Sung-han said.

Kim Jong Il introduced his "Red Banner" policy in 1996, a more militant tack than his father's blend of Stalinism and Korean self-reliance. Kim Jong Il inherited the role of absolute ruler from his father, Kim Il Sung, who died of a heart attack in 1994.

The elder Kim called himself the "Great Leader," and Kim Jong Il calls himself the "Dear Leader." The younger Kim has remained one of the most mysterious leaders in the world. He is thought to have been married three times and is known to have three sons and at least one daughter.