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N. Korea Succession ‘Not Falling Into Place’ : Asia: Delay in public transfer of power to late ruler’s son leads to speculation, concern.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

American experts on Korea are beginning to wonder whether, as Shakespeare might put it, something is rotten in Pyongyang.

Six weeks after the death of President Kim Il Sung, the succession of his son and political heir, Kim Jong Il, is still mysteriously incomplete. American specialists are no longer as confident as they were last month that the younger Kim will consolidate his power as the new North Korean leader.

Any power struggle in Pyongyang could hamper North Korea’s ability to carry out agreements to terminate its nuclear weapons program, one of the top priorities of American foreign policy. North Korean and U.S. officials in Geneva entered into a first, tentative agreement on nuclear issues last week and are scheduled to meet again next month for further negotiations.

“Things are not falling into place,” said James Lilley of the American Enterprise Institute, a former U.S. ambassador to South Korea. “You get these gnawing signs that something is wrong.”

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The signs of possible disarray fall into two categories:

* First, the lack of any formal confirmation of Kim Jong Il’s accession to power. There has been no meeting of the Korean Workers’ Party to name Kim as its new chairman. Nor has he been appointed North Korea’s official head of state. In fact, the most important new title he acquired was head of the organizing committee for his father’s funeral.

* Second, Kim Jong Il has not given any speeches, met with foreign diplomats in Pyongyang or assumed any other public role beyond attending his father’s carefully staged funeral. His seclusion has fueled old speculation that Kim might have some sort of debilitating or embarrassing health problem.

The American specialists cautioned that no one knows for sure what is happening in Pyongyang, one of the world’s most secretive places. And many warned that it is too early to draw any firm conclusions about Kim Jong Il’s future.

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But they said one thing is already clear. “He simply isn’t going to have the same unchallenged authority as his father,” said Selig Harrison of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “There’s going to be more broad-based decision-making.”

Harrison, who has made frequent visits to Pyongyang, said he believes it is still too soon to say whether there is a power struggle brewing within the North Korean leadership. But he acknowledges that “if, by the first of October, there were still no changes (to confirm Kim Jong Il’s status as the North Korean leader), it would raise questions in my mind.”

U.S. intelligence officials are similarly perplexed.

“Nobody can figure out why they haven’t had any convocation (of the Korean Workers’ Party leadership) yet,” admitted one intelligence specialist. “Why is it taking so long?”

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One possibility for the delay is that Kim Jong Il is trying to extend the mourning for his father as long as possible, in hopes that North Korea’s reverence for Kim Il Sung will be transferred to his son and political heir. A long mourning would also give Kim Jong Il more time to work behind the scenes at consolidating his power.

Another theory, advanced by some South Korean officials, is that Kim Jong Il may be waiting for some special, propitious occasion to formally assume power.

“There are several dates, like Sept. 9, the anniversary of the founding of the North Korean republic, and Oct. 10, the date of the founding of the party,” South Korean Ambassador to Washington Han Seung Soo said. “I think they’re trying to choose a good date.”

Although there is no sign of activity by Kim Jong Il, the Korea watchers pointed out that neither is there much evidence of other political activity in Pyongyang.

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“At this point, we don’t see any signs of the North Korean military or security forces behaving in a way that’s going to threaten him,” one senior U.S. intelligence official asserted. “There’s no sign of any political opposition (to Kim Jong Il) building up.”

The biggest mystery of all is why Kim Jong Il has avoided all speeches and public appearances.

After all, Kim, 52, had been groomed to assume power for almost two decades before his father’s death. He had, by many reports, taken over increasingly active control of day-to-day affairs in North Korea in his father’s last years. He had already taken over as commander in chief of the armed forces in December, 1991.

Wouldn’t a new leader, in a nation whose economy has recently been contracting at the rate of 5% a year, want to address his people? Apparently not in North Korea.

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Korea specialists noted that Kim Jong Il has always been something of a recluse. He avoided seeing foreign visitors in Pyongyang for years, most recently when former President Jimmy Carter visited last June for talks on nuclear issues.

Still, it was surprising when North Korea announced that no foreign leaders would be invited to Kim Il Sung’s funeral. And it raised eyebrows when television footage of the funeral ceremonies showed Kim Jong Il looking haggard, expressionless and, most of all, speechless.

In public, at least, nothing has been heard from him since.

There long have been reports that Kim Jong Il suffered from some physical problem that impaired his ability to speak.

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Harrison is convinced that Kim Jong Il is in good health. He pointed out that Bo Hi Pak, an official of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church and publisher of the Washington Times, last month visited Pyongyang for Kim Il Sung’s funeral and afterward reported that the younger Kim seemed to be fine.

If nothing else, Kim Jong Il’s continuing silence underscores the remarkably secretive nature of North Korea’s political system.

“They (North Korean officials) haven’t decided when to let this guy (Kim Jong Il) out of the closet,” said one perplexed U.S. intelligence official. "(President) Clinton is on the air every 35 seconds. This guy is going to be lucky if he’s on TV three times in a year.”


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