SEOUL - Think of any scenario for next week's conference in Pyongyang of the
Workers' Party of Korea, and you may be right. The ascension of favorite son
Kim Jong-eun to a top party position? Certainly a strong possibility. A grand
finale complete with declarations of the glorious future of the party, the
armed forces and the country in the face of nuclear war by the US but no
mention of new leaders? You might also be correct if you chose that outcome.
Or how about a power struggle, even an explosion in which one faction battles
another? Unlikely but not out of the question. Another option: yet another
delay of the conference, unexplained
or not, while analysts everywhere list all possible causes with little or
nothing to support any of their theories.
Really, all bets are off for the denouement of the long-awaited conference, but
word from Pyongyang's Korean Central News Agency that it's going to happen on
Tuesday, September 28, would appear pretty definitive. All we don't know are
such details as what it will decide, whether Dear Leader Kim Jong-il will make
a speech, whether he will show off at all and, of course, whether “the kid”
will finally make his debut, much less get a real job
The kid is Kim Jong-eun, who, to judge from the lone known photograph of him as
a chubby-cheeked teen at an elite international school in Berne in Switzerland
may be a little more photogenic, taller and probably an overall smoother item
than his father. That's to be expected considering that he speaks English, some
French and German and was a fan of the National Basketball Association and its
all-time greatest star, Michael Jordan.
But what difference is all that going to make when the country may be seething
under tensions that are not likely to boil over while Kim Jong-il is alive?
Maybe not much right now, but the answer become more difficult after he goes in
view of rivalries that appear inevitable between members of his tight-knit
inner family and generals who've got to have other ideas.
Look out for the manipulations of Pyongyang's power couple, Jang Song-thaek and
wife Kim Kyong-hui, Kim Jong-il's younger sister. Jang rose through the ranks
of the Workers' Party but disappeared from view for several years, probably as
a result of competition for power among members of Kim Jong-il's family, before
emerging as influential as ever several years ago.
Jang can likely thank his wife's influence on Kim Jong-il in large measure for
his resuscitation. Kim, whose power rests in his position as chairman of the
national defense commission, not only gave Jang a place on the commission but
named him in June as vice chairman.
Jang's power and prestige were on display when he accompanied Kim in May to
Beijing for a session with Chinese President Hu Jintao, at which they made the
case for a vast infusion of aid and investment
Jang's wife, Kim Kyong-hui, is also a strong contender for power in her own
right. In charge of light industry for the party, she's been photographed with
Kim Jong-il, as well as her husband, on frequent visits to industrial plants
and military bases. She's a member of the party central committee and might
wind up with her husband in a senior party post. It's even conceivable the
party, which is ruled by Kim Jong-il as general secretary, will wind up
competing with the military as the center of national power.
How long, though, will military leaders put up with such authority in the hands
of people with no military background? For that matter, what about Kim
Jong-eun? Once ensconced on the family throne, will he want to accept Jang as a
permanent regent – or will he look for allies within the armed forces, perhaps
among younger officers?
To outward appearances, however, there is no sign of dissent in the military
establishment. Vice Marshall Jo Myong-rok, a one-time air force commander who
traveled to Washington in October 2000 and met president Bill Clinton and
Madeleine Albright, then secretary of state, is at the age of 80 believed too
old and too loyal to want to challenge Kim Jong-il's selection.
Two other generals, however, may present problems.
The first is General O Kuk-ryol, 79, also a former air force commander. Some
see General O as the second most powerful man in North Korea after Kim Jong-il,
whom he has known from his youth. He has served as chief of the staff of the
army, lost out in a dispute with another top general, but surfaced again as
chief of the defense bureau of the Workers' Party. He's said to be an
influential strategist, at the center of the debate that may be going on about
reforming the party, introducing the dynamic "new leadership" that the North
Korean media is hyping as the whole point of the conference.
Then there is General Kim Kyok-sik, in charge of troops in the southwest of
North Korea, including the ports on the Yellow Sea from which the North is
challenging the Northern Limit Line set by the United Nations Command after the
Korean War but never agreed on by the North.
Kim is certainly a loyalist but believed to have masterminded and ordered the
attack in March on the South Korean navy corvette the Cheonan in which
46 sailors died. South Korea's investigation into the attack concluded that a
midget submarine from one of the ports under Kim's command carried out the
sinking, firing the torpedo that split the Cheonan in two.
General Kim, who was placed in charge of the southwestern quadrant of the
country after having lost his post as chief of staff, is assumed to have wanted
to show his toughness - and have been eager for vengeance after a firefight
last November in which a similar South Korean corvette machine-gunned a North
Korean patrol boat, sending it back to port "in flames" with an unknown loss of
Still in his 60s, General Kim is of an age when he might adopt a more
independent course after Kim Jong-il, suffering from a stroke, diabetes and a
kidney ailment, finally passes on. And he might be inclined to ally with Kim
Jong-eun if reports of the kid's enthusiasm for the attack on the Cheonan
are credible. According to this theory, Jong-eun endorsed the attack to
demonstrate his machismo and win the backing of military hardliners.
Two figures that don't seem to count, meanwhile, are Kim Jong-il's two older
sons, Kim Jong-nam and Kim Jong-chul, both of whom have missed out in the power
game. Jong-nam, who has gained a reputation as an overweight playboy, spends
much of his time in Macau, the gambling center near Hong Kong. Jong-chul and
Jong-un have the same mother, who passed away six years ago, but Jong-chul,
after rising within the party, lost out as he was deemed "too feminine".
Exactly what is going to happen at the party conference has to have been
meticulously preordained in all these days of waiting, but that's not to say
all will work as planned. "The party conference is kind of adventurism," said
Kim Tae-woo, , senior research fellow at the Korea Institute for Defense
Analyses. "It also involves the most fundamental decision-making."
The conventional wisdom is that the conference may fulfill the same role as the
last full-scale congress of the Workers' Party in 1980 when Kim Jong-il
appeared as his heir to his father, Kim Il-sung. One question, however, is
whether the conference is on the same level as a party congress - or is in fact
a more exclusive gathering.
In maneuvering to elevate his son as North Korea's next leader, Kim Jong-il has
to be extremely careful when it comes to timing. He was 38 years old in 1980
when he ascended as his father's heir presumptive, and he rose not through the
party but via the defense commission.
Given the uncertainty, Kim Tae-woo doubts if reports of large military units
outside Pyongyang are there for a post-conference parade. Rather, he said,
"They are on guard."