Delegates from all over North Korea will meet in the capital, Pyongyang, tomorrow to elect a new top leadership body. The expectation – and, given the secrecy that prevails, it can be no more than that – is that the special conference will name a successor to the present leader, Kim Jong-il, who is believed to have suffered a stroke several months ago, and pave the way for one of Kim's sons, possibly the third, 27-year old Kim Jong-un, to become heir apparent.
Such conferences are a rarity in North Korea. Comparisons are being made with the congress of 1980 when Kim Jong-il was formally singled out as the successor to his long-serving father, Kim Il-sung. And the true import of this meeting is unlikely to be clear until outside analysts have pored over the small print. There is a chance, though, that North Koreans are living through the last days of the present regime and that major change could be afoot.
Their country has spent the past 30 years bucking every regional and global trend. The moves towards a market economy in China and the then Soviet Union passed it by. So did the fall of the Berlin Wall, the implosion of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. Through all these cataclysmic developments, North Korea stuck rigidly to its own self-styled independent way, imprisoned behind the barbed wire it had wound around itself, impervious – or so its leaders intended – to the world outside.
Quite how isolated and repressive it remains is vividly illustrated by the treatment meted out to our correspondent when he took too close an interest, for the authorities' liking, in the abject state of the local food market. Not that North Korea's leaders have been able to insulate their country completely. Its nuclear ambitions have exposed it to outside pressure, eliciting a measure of reluctant and fitful engagement. Food shortages and a botched currency reform weakened the regime and forced it to seek help – in a roundabout way – from outside.
It has to be recognised that transitions in closed one-party states are times of particular risk, and the more tightly sealed and dictatorial the regime, the greater the danger is likely to be. Whatever emerges from the coming conclave, the hope must be that, if and when major change comes to North Korea, it is peaceful. Its people deserve better than the deprivation imposed upon them for so long; and a more open, less paranoid, regime would make the whole region a safer place.