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North Korea's party congress: Change in the wind?

By Mike Chinoy, for CNN
  • Tuesday sees start of a crucial conference of North Korea's ruling Korean Workers' Party
  • Speculation has focused on the succession to North Korea's ailing leader Kim Jong Il
  • All signs point to Kim's youngest son, Kim Jong Un, as his designated heir
  • There are questions whether Kim Jong Un can secure the loyalty of the ruling party, military

Mike Chinoy is a Senior Fellow at the U.S.-China Institute at the University of Southern California and Vice President of NewsCertified Exchange, a media training company. A former CNN Senior Asia Correspondent, he has visited North Korea 14 times and is author of Meltdown: The Inside Story of the North Korean Nuclear Crisis.

(CNN) -- A regime in crisis. A leadership struggle. An uncertain transition. A system potentially on the brink of collapse.

These have been the prevailing themes of the intense speculation in the run-up to Tuesday's scheduled start of a crucial conference of North Korea's ruling Korean Workers' Party. As The Economist magazine put it, North Korea "now seems to be entering a period in which it could be more unpredictable and dangerous than usual."

Except that -- so far -- the evidence for such claims is flimsy at best, fueled mostly by rumors and unconfirmed reports from the frequently unreliable South Korean media. In fact, there are a number of intriguing signs suggesting the opposite -- that North Korea might be entering a period in which it seeks to reduce external tensions and, possibly, begins to tinker with addressing its acute economic problems.

Much of the speculation -- and what has fueled the rumors of instability and political crisis -- has focused on the succession to North Korea's ailing leader Kim Jong Il. All signs point to Kim's youngest son, Kim Jong Un, as the already designated heir. The absence of an explicit public confirmation, however, coupled with the elder Kim's uncertain health, has led many to conclude -- improbably -- that the entire process -- and thus the long-term viability of the north Korean system, is in doubt.

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  • Kim Jong Il
  • North Korea
  • Pyongyang
  • South Korea
  • United States
  • China
  • Japan

Why would Kim Jong Il risk his legacy and the state his father led all those years by choosing a son whom others regard as unfit to rule? And what is the basis of the assumption that he will formally turn over power now, as opposed to put him in jobs that will prepare him to rule at some point in the future?

In depth: North Korea

Certainly there are real questions about Kim Jong Un's experience, leadership skills, and whether someone still in his 20s will be able to secure the loyalty of the ruling party and the North Korean military.

But it is worth noting that similar questions were raised about Kim Jong Il's ability to survive as successor to his own father, the late president Kim Il Sung. Like Kim Jong Un, Kim Jong Il was a figure of mystery and sometimes derision among outside observers, many of whom predicted he would not last long after his father's death in 1994.

Sixteen years later, however, Kim Jong Il has defied the skeptics by remaining in power and, despite all its problems, kept North Korea afloat.

In the absence of any reliable information on Kim Jong Un, we have no grounds to assume that the succession process is in deep trouble or doomed to failure -- or, equally, that it will succeed. We just don't know.

Of equal interest -- and, unlike the speculation about Kim Jong Un, something that can be based on fact -- is that three prominent officials associated with North Korea's effort to improve relations with the United States were promoted just days before the party conference.

Kang Sok Ju, the regime's First Vice Foreign Minister and the man who negotiated the 1994 Agreed Framework nuclear deal with the Clinton administration, was named Vice Premier. Kang was succeeded by Kim Gye Gwan, the chief North Korean envoy to the six-party talks. Kim played a key role in the interim agreements reached at those talks in 2005 and 2007. Kim's deputy Ri Yong Ho was also promoted.

By North Korean standards, all three are relative pragmatists with a long history of interacting with American and other foreign officials. In addition to formal negotiating sessions, Kim Gye Gwan has attended numerous informal meetings with U.S. officials and has interacted at length with such prominent figures as Henry Kissinger, Madeleine Albright, and others.

Even more important, he has been seen in Kim Jong Il's entourage when he met with Americans. After a prolonged period of heightened tension, his promotion, along with that of Kang and Ri, suggests that Pyongyang may be looking for a revival of diplomacy.

Interestingly, the promotions came amid a slight easing in what had become an increasingly hostile relationship between North and South Korea in the wake of the North's sinking of the South Korean navy vessel Cheonan in March.

In early September, the South offered aid to the North for the first time in three years, and the two sides have begun discussions about the possible resumption of reunions of family members separated by the Korean war. How far these talks will get is unclear given the South Korean government's unwillingness to engage even before the Cheonan sinking.

A few weeks before these developments came news of another important promotion with potentially significant implications for economic policy. Park Pong Ju, a former Prime Minister who had been sidelined for supporting a cautious set of economic reforms in 2002, was brought back to the central government and given a key role in industrial policy.

Park is considered an ally of Jang Song Taek, Kim Jong Il's brother-in-law. Jang is widely viewed as a possible "regent" who may well become the central figure in assisting Kim Jong Un to manage a successful transition once Kim Jong Il passes from the scene. Both have been associated with previous economic policy changes.

Given the secrecy of the North Korean political system, it is hard to be sure what all these personnel moves may mean, or how much clout these so-called pragmatists will actually have.

But the possibility that they could mark the start of cautious steps towards economic reform and greater emphasis on diplomacy is certainly just as plausible a scenario as one predicting crisis and collapse.

For the U.S. and South Korea, which have balked at resuming negotiations with Pyongyang, there may now be an opening to re-engage. Not to engage now would be to deny themselves any influence over the future of North Korea.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of Mike Chinoy and do not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S.-China Institute or the NewsCertified Exchange.