North Korea celebrates nation’s founding day amid speculation on father-to-son succession

By Hyung-jin Kim, AP
Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Dynasty speculation on North Korea founding day

SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea celebrated its 62nd anniversary Thursday with odes to supreme leader Kim Jong Il and pilgrimages to his late father’s statue amid hints that a political meeting believed aimed at promoting his son as successor is imminent.

There is widespread speculation that Kim will use the conference to give his third and youngest son, Kim Jong Un, a key Workers’ Party position as part of plans to extend the Kim dynasty into a third generation.

Kim Jong Il, known as “Dear Leader” in North Korea’s cult of personality, himself took over leadership after his father, North Korea founder Kim Il Sung, died of heart failure in 1994 — a handover that was communism’s first hereditary transfer of power.

Now 68, Kim may have wanted to name his successor in 2012, the centenary of his father’s birth. But a reported stroke in 2008 may have sped up the process, with his little-known third son, believed to be in his late 20s, emerging as the likely heir. Kim Jong Il is also said be suffering from diabetes and a kidney ailment.

State media reported Monday that Workers’ Party delegates were gathering in Pyongyang to elect new party leaders in what would be North Korea’s first major political conference in 30 years.

Since then, there has been no official confirmation that the meeting — which North Korean state media slated for “early September” — had begun.

However, a senior official at a pro-Pyongyang association in Tokyo said Wednesday that the meeting would take place “in a few days.”

“The leadership and function of the Workers’ Party would be further strengthened through this historic” conference, Ho Jong Man, chief vice chairman of the Central Standing Committee of Korean Residents in Japan, said at a reception, according to a copy of his speech provided by his office.

The association has close ties with Pyongyang but does not work for the North Korean government.

A Pyongyang resident hinted to video news service APTN that the conference hadn’t yet begun.

“We are significantly commemorating the 62nd anniversary … ahead of the meeting of Workers’ Party representatives,” Ri Pyong Song told APTN in Pyongyang.

Ri was among the legions of North Koreans who paid their respects to Kim Il Sung at the hillside spot where a giant statue of the country’s founder, known as “Great Leader,” overlooks Pyongyang.

Soldiers in uniforms and neatly dressed citizens, some women dressed in colorful traditional Korean dresses, offered bouquets of flowers and bowed before the statue, APTN footage showed.

Senior North Korean government and Workers’ Party officials paid homage at Pyongyang’s Kumsusan Memorial Palace, where Kim’s embalmed body lies in state, state media reported.

North Korea watchers say the Workers’ Party meeting may have been postponed.

“It’s because of Kim Jong Il’s health. There is no other reason,” said Ha Tae-keung, chief of Open Radio for North Korea, a Seoul-based station specializing in North Korea affairs, citing unidentified sources in Pyongyang.

“He has to be in the conference at least five hours even though he will be sitting most of time. I think he’s trying to find a day when he is well enough to do that,” he said.

The recent flooding is believed to have blocked roads and affected North Korea’s outdated railways, delaying delegates’ arrivals, said Jo Sung-rae of the Seoul-based activist group Pax Koreana. He cited unidentified sources in North Korea.

State TV broadcast patriotic songs calling for loyalty to Kim Jong Il, calling him a “great, friendly general.” The main Rodong Sinmun newspaper urged its 24 million people to unite behind Kim to support his “military-first policy.”

The founding anniversary is a major holiday in North Korea, along with the birthdays of Kim and his father.

North Korea has launched a propaganda campaign promoting Kim Jong Un, including songs and poems praising the young man, South Korea’s spy agency said.

Little is known about him, including the exact year of his birth and how he looks. He is believed to have studied in Switzerland during his middle school days.

A former sushi chef to Kim Jong Il wrote in a 2003 memoir that Jong Un as a child looked and acted just like his father, was competitive and aggressive as well as a keen fan of American basketball.

Jong Un has two older brothers: 29-year-old Jong Chul and half-brother Jong Nam, now 39.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Washington is watching the North’s “leadership process” closely. She said the U.S. and its partners want to “convince whoever is in leadership in North Korea that their future would be far better served by” abandoning their nuclear weapons programs.

Associated Press writer Tomoko A. Hosaka contributed to this report from Tokyo.

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