North Korean Succession Plans Are Shrouded in Mystery

Is ailing dictator Kim Jong Il positioning his youngest son to rule?

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Living up to its reputation as the world's most secretive and insular state, North Korea is expected to host a secret congress of the country's ruling Communist Party this month, the first such conclave since 1966 and one that experts believe is intended to help usher in a successor to dictator Kim Jong Il. Indeed, some experts say that the meeting itself is already underway.

North Korea's state-run media have been silent on the logistics, but foreign experts anticipate that the dictator's third and youngest son, Kim Jong Un, will be named to an important government post, a key step toward assuming the reins of the state. The media have said that elections to the country's Politburo are expected this month.

Meanwhile, American diplomats arrived in Beijing today for talks with Chinese officials on how to convince the reclusive state to abandon its nuclear weapons program.

The succession process in North Korea has been ramping up slowly for at least the past 18 months, and could yet be challenged by powerful figures in the military. A dynastic handoff to the younger Kim, believed to be in his late 20s, would not be completed until the passing of his father, known throughout the country as the "Dear Leader." Some Korea-watchers are hopeful that the son known in the North as the "Brilliant Comrade," who was educated for a time in a Swiss boarding school, will be more receptive to reform, but the regime is built on a base of repression and corruption and the gulf is wide between the "hermit kingdom" and the outside world.

Relations between Washington and Pyongyang, in particular, have grown increasingly sour over a series of issues, including the stalled six-party talks to end the North's nuclear weapons program; the sinking of a South Korean warship in March, blamed on commandos from the North; and a series of North Korean missile tests viewed as provocative. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley placed the onus for improving relations squarely on Kim's regime. "It's North Korea that needs to do what it can to create a better environment for progress," he said last week.

The North Koreans, meanwhile, have reacted angrily to a series of U.S.-South Korean naval exercises, the resumption of anti-regime propaganda broadcasts into North Korea, and spy plane flights targeting the North. And last month, the Obama administration slapped a series of further sanctions on key North Korean individuals and entities, aimed particularly at those said to be involved with nuclear weapons development and illicit activities that enrich Kim and the ruling elite, such as arms dealing, drug smuggling, and trading in counterfeit $100 bills.

Washington officials worry that succession maneuvering will prompt more dangerous muscle-flexing by Pyongyang, perhaps even another nuclear test, intended to reassure the North's powerful military and show a strong face to the outside world at a sensitive time.

Kim Jong Il, who is believed to be in poor health and may have suffered a stroke in 2008, visited China twice in the past four months, fueling speculation about talks with Beijing about his succession. China, North Korea's largest trading partner and main political ally, is vital to the regime's survival. The younger Kim will need Beijing's backing to successfully fill his father's shoes.

To consolidate his inheritance, Kim Jong Un will have to weigh outside pressure for economic and political change against the internal demands from members of the military and political elite to protect their privileges in a nation where millions suffer from hunger and privation.