x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Kim Jong-il health problems delay key N Korea meeting

North Korea delays a conference called to annoint leader Kim Jong-il's successor, but his health problems are not serious enough to cancel the meeting.

SEOUL // North Korea's ruling party has delayed the start of a rare conference due to leader Kim Jong-il's health, but his condition is not serious enough to cancel the meeting, South Korean television reported today. The Workers' Party conference, bringing together the secretive state's ruling elite for the first time in 30 years, was called to pick a new leadership and likely anoint an heir - his youngest son - to the dynasty as Mr Kim's health deteriorates.

With North and South Korea still technically at war, having only signed an armistice in 1953, regional powers are anxious to know what changes are afoot and who will command the nearly 1.2 million troops and another 7.7 million in the reserves. Mr Kim, 68, is suspected of suffering a stroke in 2008, and didn't appear in public for months until 2009. He also looked frail during trips to China, the isolated North's only major supporter, over the past few months.

South Korea's YTN television cited an intelligence official in Seoul as saying he was aware that Mr Kim's health had worsened after a whirlwind five-day trip to China last month. The source said Mr Kim's health concerns were not serious enough to warrant cancelling the meeting, which would open soon. The meeting had been scheduled to start before September 15. Experts say the best case and most market-friendly outcome for succession is an approximate continuation of the current system, which would mostly satisfy regional powers who seek a stable and incremental evolution over a sudden regime collapse.

South Korea's unification ministry, which deals with North Korean affairs, declined to comment on the YTN report, as did the foreign ministry. The scheduling of the conference coincides with a flurry of diplomatic activity in the region, home to the world's second- and third-largest economies and a massive arms build-up straddling the Korean peninsula military border. Workers' Party delegates have been summoned to Pyongyang for the biggest political meeting since 1980, when Mr Kim himself began his official role to succeed his father and state founder by taking on a Workers' Party title at the age of 38.

Experts have said Mr Kim's youngest son, Kim Jong-un, is likely being lined up for an official title at the conference. By signalling Kim Jong-un's rise, experts say North Korea is readying for a collective father-and-son leadership in years to come, which will cement the family's grip on power. In the event Kim Jong-il dies suddenly, his son, by then identified as figurehead leader, would be surrounded by close family confidantes who have been appointed to senior positions in the Workers' Party and military in recent months.

* Reuters