SEOUL (Reuters) - Secretive North Korea’s ruling party is to hold a conference on September 28 for electing its supreme leadership, at least two weeks later than originally planned.
The conference of the Workers’ Party is expected to anoint the ailing Kim Jong-il’s youngest son — Kim Jong-un — as his successor.
The meeting had been scheduled to start sometime in early September, but on Tuesday state media reported the conference would take place on September 28. It provided no reason for the delay.
Here are some possible explanations for the delay:
South Korea says the meeting seems to have been delayed by “internal reasons,” such as flooding. On September 15, the deadline for the start of the conference, North Korean state media reported severe damage from flooding and landslides caused by a typhoon at the start of the month.
Reports said the flooding may have prevented some party delegates reaching Pyongyang or had simply dampened the festive mood.
Several analysts were skeptical. Andrei Lankov of Kookmin University says it was difficult to believe logistical problems were the cause, as moving a couple of thousand people around even around a poor country like North Korea hardly constitutes a major challenge.
Rumors had been swirling in South Korean and Japanese media that Kim’s health could delay the start. Kim, 68, is suspected of suffering a stroke in 2008 and photographs of him during a five-day trip through northern China last month showed him looking frail.
Chosun Ilbo newspaper questioned whether Kim, who as party general secretary, could sit upright in front of thousands of deputies and TV cameras at least for five hours a day, or he was capable of standing up to deliver his speech.
Some analysts say disputes over a proposed reshuffle of the power structure caused the delay. Lankov said infighting could have even involved the family itself, warning the regime is far less united than commonly perceived.
The WPK itself had seemingly slipped into obscurity until a few years ago, with most of the top posts unfilled after incumbents died. Last year’s revision of the constitution emphasized the country’s “military-first” policy, and gave prominence to the National Defense Commission.
But Brian Myers of Dongseo University cautions that there is a common misperception in the West that “military first” implied “party second” — when in fact it was shorthand for the WPK putting the military first.
Still, it is clear the WPK has raised its profile, as illustrated by the fanfare in the leadup to conference. Myers says this could be because party support is seen as important to legitimise a new leader.
At the personal level, Lankov says people who are now rising within the power structure, namely Kim’s brother-in-law Jang Song-thaek, are from outside the military. Many analysts say Jang will act as regent to the young Kim if his father dies soon.
Yuriko Koike, a former Japanese defense minister, says it is the leader’s sister Kim Kyong-hui, not her husband, who may be appointed caretaker. She may have plans of her own to then usurp the younger Kim and take the leadership herself, Koike says.
Editing by Jonathan Thatcher