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Rare North Korean meeting may set stage for power handover

By the CNN Wire Staff
Kim Jong Un is expected to succeed his father, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.
Kim Jong Un is expected to succeed his father, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The Korean Workers' Party has not convened its delegates in decades
  • Kim Jong Un is widely expected to succeed his father, Kim Jong Il
  • The older Kim is 68 and has been in poor health since suffering a stroke

(CNN) -- North Korea's ruling party will host its largest meeting in decades next week, possibly to set the stage for the handover of power from Kim Jong Il to his youngest son.

The official Korean Central News Agency reported Tuesday that the meeting is set for September 28. State media previously said the Korean Workers' Party would assemble in early September, but had not reported a date.

The party last convened its delegates more than four decades ago. And speculation that North Korea's political leaders are working to set the stage for a possible handover of power to Kim Jong Un is widespread.

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

Video: North Korea after Kim Jong-Il
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"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," Mike Chinoy, the author of "Meltdown: The Inside Story of the North Korean Nuclear Crisis," said earlier this month.

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 motivated, in part, 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 military and nuclear and missile programs while its people have gone hungry.

China is North Korea's biggest trading partner and its main source of food and arms, helping the North 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," said Richard Bush, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank.

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 Jang is seen as providing a support network for Kim Jong Un.

Not only is Jang family, he's a top official in the military.

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."

Kim Jong Il 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.