Kim Jong Il's apparent trip to China last week has excited more speculation over succession planning for the ailing North Korean dictator. That trip was widely interpreted as a way to introduce Kim's youngest son, Kim Jong Eun, to the leadership of Pyongyang's most important ally. But that is not necessarily the most important step in this process. Far more interesting may be the move afoot within Pyongyang to establish the younger Kim as the unquestioned next in line.
A few weeks ago the North Korean authorities announced that in September the ruling Korean Workers Party will hold a conference—essentially, a simplified version of the Party Congress. Such conferences are few and far between. The last Party conference took place in 1966 and the last Party congress met in 1980. These serve solely as rubber stamps for decisions that have already been made, whether on policies or appointments to key posts. In a Leninist state, Party gatherings are chiefly venues where such decisions are announced with the greatest possible pomp.
An extraordinary gathering generally is convened only to announce an extraordinary decision—after all, the last Party Congress was convened in 1980 to announce the anointment of Kim Jong Il as heir-apparent to his father. Few doubt that this time this decision will be about the succession. The world will probably "learn" that Korea has been lucky to acquire another genius of leadership who, of course, was born into the ruling Kim family.
This will be a high-stakes moment for the regime. A change of leader is bound to produce expectations of other changes. Indeed some major news outlets already speculate that Swiss-educated Kim Jong Eun might initiate some Chinese-style reforms. He is young, merely 27 or 28 years old, and has spent much of his time outside the country—all factors that could suggest a greater willingness to reform. But do not hold your breath. The young man appears to be favored by many within the regime precisely because he is the least likely person to change anything—in the short term, at least.