September 24, 2010 13:25
North Korea said Tuesday it will hold its first extraordinary congress of the Workers Party in 44 years next Tuesday. It was originally set for early September. The last such party congress was held in 1966 and the purpose of the latest gathering is to elect its highest officials. On Thursday, North Korea announced a reshuffle of senior officials and appointed Kang Sok-ju, first vice minister of foreign affairs, as vice premier, while Kim Kye-gwan, the North's chief delegate to the six-party nuclear talks, was named to fill Kang's slot at the Foreign Ministry. Ri Yong-ho, Kim's deputy in the nuclear talks, was appointed vice foreign minister to replace Kim.
According to the regulations, the party is supposed to meet every five years to decide on policies, and the extraordinary congress is held in the event of emergencies between regular party meetings. But the North has not convened a party meeting since 1980 and then abruptly announced the planned congress, only to postpone it by two weeks. It has yet to explain the reason for the delay. Just like other communist countries, North Korea is guided, in principle, by the communist party, but the party became only a titular leadership since the 1990s, when Kim Jong-il established the military as its prime governing mechanism. In April last year, it tweaked its constitution to hail the "Songun" or military-first doctrine as its leading ideology along with the "Juche" or self-reliance policy.
With the party congress announced, international attention has focused on whether the process will herald the beginning of Kim Jong-il's third son Jong-un's rise to power. Kim Jong-il began his ascent to power in 1964 when he became a party member at the age of 32 and rose through the ranks until he was officially appointed successor to the throne in 1974. There is a strong possibility that the party will serve as the conduit for Jong-un's succession too.
But no one outside the regime can be sure in making such predictions. South Korea, the U.S. and Japan are all at a loss when it comes to the reason for the delay in the party congress. Radio Free Asia reported recently that Kim Jong-il dozes off several times a day for five minutes at a time and that his health problems caused the delay. Yet it is difficult to determine exactly what is happening in North Korea. Some are saying that the promotion of Kang Sok-ju and other officials in charge of dealing with the U.S. suggests North Korea's intention to change its focus from demonstrations of military power to dialogue and diplomacy. But that is also just a guess. Kang had served as first vice minister of foreign affairs for the last 24 years and had apparently served as Kim Jong-il's confidant on diplomatic issues, so it seems unlikely that Kang's appointment as vice premier of the cabinet at the age of 71 would change his role and signify a shift in North Korea's diplomatic policies.
It seems clear that North Korea's leadership is undergoing major changes due to Kim Jong-il's age and failing health. Accurate intelligence is crucial, especially at times like this, and Seoul needs better realistic measures to deal with the regime; thus it urgently needs to reassess its intelligence-gathering, analysis and policy-making capabilities and strengthen areas that are deficient.
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