North Korea’s move to delay its biggest political gathering for 30 years has fueled speculation of a possible power struggle or a deterioration in the health of leader Kim Jong-il.
Senior officials have reportedly told international agencies in Pyongyang that the ruling communist party conference has been delayed because of storm damage.
Analysts say such an explanation is feasible, but in the absence of any word from one of the world’s most secretive nations, other possibilities are being explored.
The meeting had been scheduled for the first half of this month to elect the “highest leading body” of the Workers’ Party of Korea.
It will be closely watched for leadership and policy changes and above all for signs that Kim, 68, is preparing for a power transfer to his youngest son, Jong-un.
South Korean Unification Minister Hyun In-taek said on Wednesday the delay may be due to floods or various other reasons.
“There might be some internal reasons, but our government needs accurate information to confirm,” he said.
“Something unusual” is happening in Pyongyang, Andrei Lankov of Seoul’s Kookmin University told reporters in written comments this week.
Lankov said the ruling elite might be far less united than usually assumed, with some factions seriously unhappy about the likely choice of successor and the expected make-up of the new leadership.
Kim suffered a stroke in August 2008 and has reportedly been speeding up succession planning since then. The meeting was expected to put supporters of his son into key party posts and possibly give Kim Jong-un himself a position.
However, the junior Kim would hardly win public acceptance at a time when people are struggling to cope with flooded homes and worsened food shortages, analysts said. The North’s official news agency, in a belated report, said on Wednesday that dozens of people were killed and homes and transport links severely damaged by a typhoon which hit the peninsula on Sept. 2.
Kim Yong-hyun of Seoul’s Dongguk University said the North might also need more time to craft economic policies after Kim’s visit to close ally China late last month.
“Kim Jong-il might have been taken by surprise at the strength of China’s demands for economic reform,” he told Chosun.
Jeung Young-tae of the Korea Institute for National Unification told the newspaper a reshuffle of the party central committee and politburo could have sparked some factional fighting.
The independent Hankyoreh daily, quoting a Seoul government source, said there had been no final decision on whether the son should take the influential post of head of the organization department or whether this should go to Jang Song-thaek.
Jang, the powerful brother-in-law of leader Kim, is expected to act as “regent” to the Swiss-educated Jong-un, who is only in his late 20s.