|Delegates to the Workers Party conference arrive in Pyongyang.|
Well, make that Kim Chŏng-ŭn Taejang [김정은 대장]. The historic meeting of the Korea Workers Paarty has begun (in Chosŏnŏ), and the BBC reports that North Korean media introduced Kim Jong-il's youngest son one day before by reporting that he has been promoted to the rank of general.
The Telegraph says this means the DPRK military establishment has "given its tacit backing to the dynastic succession plans of Kim Jong-il," even while the Christian Science Monitor hints that the son might not even show up.
Meanwhile, ABC News says that Kim Jong-il also had his own sister Kim Kyŏng•hŭi promoted to general, as mentioned here. She is said to be an ardent supporter of Kim Jong-un, and her husband Jang Songthaek [장성택, chang sŏng•t'aek] is expected to play the role of regent if the Brilliant Comrade's succession goes through.
Not so fast, says Kushibo. If the speculation that the conference was delayed over infighting about the succession, then what we're seeing here may actually be a face-saving political compromise, one that pits hardliners against reformists. Frankly, I'm not so sure which side Kim Jong-un supporters are on — maybe both sides are trying to co-opt the Brilliant Comrade — but for now I'm guessing the stay-the-course, no-reform crowd is headed by Brother-in-law Jang, so by extension Kim Jong-un and his aunt are both in the hardline camp.
But if a group of generals and/or bureaucrats (let's call them the soft-liners) have been able to muster together enough of a coalition that they could actually hold up the conference, then that is clearly a sign that even the Dear Leader and his entourage do not wield absolute power. And that would also mean that (a) that the soft-liners have the power to force change and (b) they do not wish to see another powerful figurehead who is not readily accountable to anyone else. They would do what they could to see power placed in the hands of a larger group who share it in an orderly and predictable pattern, perhaps like the Chinese model.
But Kim Jong-il still has considerable power, despite his stroke, his age, and his (supposedly) teetering health. Going against him is very risky (apparatchiki can get executed just for suggesting a wrong policy!), so the solution would be to find a way to give Kim Jong-il what he wants while nudging the country toward a Chinese-style reform. The soft-liners seem to have the backing of Beijing (or someone has their backing... it could even be the hardliners), which would explain the KCNA news releases about how wonderfully reform worked in northeast China, on the border with North Korea.
So what, then, does Kim Jong-il want? At the very least, he wants his family to have comfort and power, but he may see the writing on the wall and realize that (a) China may undermine or outright oppose another dynastic succession, (b) none of his sons is really capable of taking over the country and holding onto power for very long (and his brilliant daughter probably couldn't take power because of her gender), and/or (c) North Korea needs to go in a new direction in order to feed all its worthy people while still keeping political power in the hands of the elite. And any or all of those reasons might be enough for him to accept a loyal opposition plan for his family members to being given positions that make them mere figureheads relative to the power that he himself has wielded.
In other words, a grand, face-saving compromise that ensures his family's comfort and position, as well as his own place in the country's history. The post-stroke Kim Jong-il, his mind altered by that drastic medical event and his conscience troubled by his proximity to the great beyond, has even shown glimpses of such a change of heart.
Of course, things may in fact be less settled than that. Perhaps the soft-liners have chosen to simply kick the can down the road while pushing for economic reforms among the new leadership. Let Kim Jong-un be promoted to general while simultaneously shoring up their own power so that he won't be in a position to take over a position like his father's when Kim Jong-il actually dies. A wait-and-see approach of biding their time while determining which would be better: blocking the Brilliant Comrade's actual succession, or installing him in a position that has nominal authority over a country that is actually run by the political apparatus (à la a constitutional monarchy).