Speculation mounted Monday that North Korea's Kim Jong Il was about to be named head of the all-powerful Communist Party as he made a rare appearance in public and was hailed as "great leader," the title accorded his late father.
Citing informed sources close to the North Korean Embassy in Beijing, Russia's Itar-Tass news agency said Kim, eldest son and long-designated heir of the late President Kim Il Sung, will be officially declared party general secretary on the party's 50th anniversary today.
Itar-Tass quoted the sources as saying Chinese President and Communist Party chief Jiang Zemin attended a reception at the embassy after being told by Pyongyang of Kim Jong Il's impending appointment.
Kim made a rare public appearance in Pyongyang, the Northern capital, on the eve of the anniversary, the Korean Central News Agency said.
"A grand ceremony for opening to traffic the Chongryu Bridge and Kumnung Tunnel No. 2 built in Pyongyang was held on Oct. 9 in the presence of the great leader comrade Kim Jong Il," said the agency, which is the government's official mouthpiece.
It said the nation was in a "festive mood" on the eve of the anniversary.
Many analysts in Seoul had earlier said the younger Kim might be named party chief today.
However, that speculation had receded recently.
North Korea suffered heavy damage from floods in July and August, and Seoul officials said the disaster might prompt the North to delay the succession.
The floods left scores homeless and destroyed rice crops, prompting Pyongyang to make a rare request for international food aid.
However, the extent of the damage has been questioned by Western experts, who suspect Pyongyang is trying to secure more aid without admitting to its economic difficulties.
The elder Kim, founder and self-proclaimed "great leader" of the reclusive Stalinist state, died in July, 1994, after ruling the country with an iron grip for nearly five decades.