BEIJING // Kim Jong-un, the expected heir to the North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, will appear next month at a rare meeting of senior government officials. It will be keenly watched by the international community for signs of how the transfer of power is unfolding.
The meeting, which will be the largest of the nation's ruling political party in more than four decades, comes amid growing speculation that Kim Jong-un, the leader's youngest son, reported to be 26 or 27, is too inexperienced for the task of managing generals possibly harbouring ambitions of their own. Analysts said North Korea cannot continue to keep Kim Jong-un out of the public eye because of the deteriorating health of his 69-year-old father, who had a stroke in 2008 that US and South Korean intelligence agencies said left him partly paralysed. "It's a very important meeting for succession," said Shi Yinhong, an international-relations professor at Beijing's Renmin University. "[Kim Jong-un's] young age is one of his most often-noticed weaknesses."
Although the meeting is ostensibly for the purpose of convening party representatives, Cheong Seong-chang, a senior fellow at the Sejong Institute near Seoul, said its real goal was "making Kim Jong-un ... the leader's official heir". That would make it similar to the 1980 party congress in which Kim Jong-il made his public debut. The naming of the North Korean leader's heir has been the subject of intelligence among the US and South Korean governments but North Korean media have never mentioned the issue.
Kim Jong-il and possibly Kim Jong-un were reported to be travelling in China yesterday on a visit that was not announced by either country. The trip might be a means for the two to consult with Chinese officials on plans to transfer power, South Korea's Yonhap News Agency and YTN television in Seoul said. Because of Kim Jong-un's age and inexperience, the country for the near future will most likely be run by a collective leadership that will include his uncle, Chang Seong-taek, analysts said.
Mr Chang, 64, is the administrative chief of the North Korean Workers' Party. He is also the second in command to Kim Jong-il of the National Defence Commission, the country's de facto most powerful organ. Some believe Mr Chang, who was appointed by Kim Jong-il to play the guardian role for the young heir, may be hiding ambition to become the ruler himself. "The critical thing is how long Kim Jong-il survives so that he can protect the heir from the powerful elites who potentially harbour ambitions," said Park Sun-won, the national security adviser to the former South Korean president Roh Moo-hyun.
"As long as Kim Jong-il is around, the heir is safe. But when Kim Jong-il dies, it can create room for confusion. The key is how soon the death of the leader comes," Mr Park said. Mr Cheong of the Sejong Institute believes the inordinate amount of attention to the heir's age and linking it as the critical factor to the regime's stability is a flawed analysis. "Age is not the most important consideration here. When Kim Jong-il purged his rival faction, he was only 25 too.
"Even if Kim Jong-il dies tomorrow, the heir's power will be intact because Jong-un has been known as displaying leadership quality since he was young. Besides, Chang Seong-taek commands little clout within the military. In case of contingency, very few generals will line up behind Chang," Mr Cheong said. Mr Shi of Renmin University said it was possible for the collective leadership to manage the country briefly after Kim Jong-il's death "as a temporary measure". After that, he said, "power will become consolidated under the young heir's leadership quickly".
Not all analysts are convinced that Kim Jong-un's taking over from his father is a done deal. "You pose the heir question to different Chinese foreign-policy experts, and you will get completely different answers," said Drew Thompson, director of China studies at the Nixon Center, a Washington-based think tank. "My instinct tells me that if the Chinese, who share a border and have a much closer relationship with North Korea, including an embassy on the ground to collect information, don't have a clear sense, then I don't trust my own instinct as to what the future leadership in North Korea is going to be," he said.
@Email:firstname.lastname@example.org * With additional reporting by the Associated Press