North Korea party to pick new leadership

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North Korea's ruling communist party has called a rare meeting to elect a new leadership team, in a move analysts said could set in motion succession plans for ailing leader Kim Jong-il's youngest son.

For the first time in three decades, the dynastic state's political elite have been summoned to a Workers' Party of Korea (WPK) convention in September, amid a series of military and political changes over the past few weeks.

"The Political Bureau of the WPK Central Committee decides to convene early in September ... a conference of the WPK for electing its highest leading body reflecting the new requirements of the WPK," the North's official KCNA news agency reported on Saturday.

Kim, 68, suffered a stroke in 2008, and is widely believed to to be readying his youngest son Jong-un to take over as leader.

"There is a great possibility Kim Jong-un will be assigned to a high ranked position in the Political Bureau during the convention of the Workers' Party," said Koh Yu-hwan of Dongguk University in Seoul, an expert on the North's leadership.

"Also the Workers' Party is likely to go through massive reshuffling of personnel and changes in the organisation as it readies itself for succession."

The WPK is the ruling body of the reclusive state and Kim serves as its general secretary. He is also chairman of the increasingly powerful National Defence Commission.

Analysts said the role of the Workers' Party has diminished over the past decades as the North has increasingly focused on its military power, but the party still dictates political ideology.

Kim himself began his official role to succeed his father and state founder by taking on a Workers' Party title at a convention in 1980 when he was 38.

Becoming a standing member of the Political Bureau that year was widely believed to be the first step in establishing himself as an heir to Kim Il-sung, who died suddenly in the summer of 1994.

The apparent moves to smooth the way for Jong-un's succession comes amid growing criticism of the North over the sinking of a South Korean navy ship in March that killed 46 sailors and drove security tensions on the Korean peninsula to new heights.

Pyongyang denies sinking the ship, but the United States and South Korea insist the North is to blame and should be punished.

Kim has in recent weeks reshuffled the Defence Commission to put close aides sympathetic to dynastic succession on the panel. His brother-in-law, Jang Song-thaek, who is seen as a potential caretaker in the event of Kim's early demise, was named to the powerful vice chairmanship.

Jong-un, in his 20s, has little experience and some analysts are sceptical he will pushed into a senior position at the convention.

"The focus of the Workers' Party convention will be on reshuffling party staff and changing the structure to perform its functions effectively as it has stopped functioning over the last years," said the head of the influential Korea Institute for National Unification, Suh Jae-jean.

"I don't expect any major steps to be taken for Kim Jong-un succession during the convention as it is seen too early and it will take two or more years before he appears in the front line of the ruling bureau."

But South Korea's spy chief has been quoted as telling a closed-door session of a parliamentary committee this week that there are moves afoot to boost Jong-un's image.