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Next Step : A First for Communism: Preparing a Dynastic Succession : The tea leaves say Kim Il Sung, longtime dictator of North Korea, may be ready to hand over power to his son. The tea leaves do not say whether it would make any difference.


TOKYO — Now is a time of unusual suspense in the arcane world of North Korea-watching. There is widespread speculation that after more than four decades of cult-like control of the affairs of state, President Kim Il Sung is thinking about retiring.

The rumors are perhaps fueled by wishful thinking in Seoul, capital of anti-Communist South Korea--and hardly a place for disinterested political analysis. But reports from elsewhere in the region are reinforcing a sense of anticipation that some form of power transition may come soon.

Japan's Kyodo News Service, in a report from Beijing in March, quoted Chinese sources as saying that the ruling Korean Worker's Party had notified China weeks earlier of Kim's intention to step back from the "front line of politics."

Two recent milestones have been widely cited as preludes to what is expected to be the world's first Communist dynastic succession, when Kim's son, Kim Jong Il, 48, would inherit his father's mantle after years of grooming.

One was the elder Kim's 78th birthday, celebrated April 15 in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang with moderate fanfare. The other was a national election for the Supreme People's Assembly, the rubber-stamp Parliament, balloting for which was moved up--by more than six months--to April 22.

This electoral haste appears to have been less a matter of democratic fervor than a sign that the Pyongyang regime sees the need to consolidate its grasp on power as news seeps in to its isolated populace of dramatic changes in Eastern Europe. Adding to external pressures is South Korea's dynamic economic success and its diplomatic courtship with the Soviet Union, which along with China has been a major benefactor of the north.

The paramount question is whether a political succession, if one is indeed in the works, would lead the country away from Kim Il Sung's personal brand of hard-line socialism, a philosophy he identifies with the word juche, or "self-reliance."

"North Korea has got to change its juche ideology because it needs technology from developed countries to get out of economic stagnation," said Yu Suk Ryul, dean for research at the South Korean Foreign Ministry's Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security.

"If it abandons juche, it has to turn to Kim Jong Il," Yu said. "Kim Il Sung would retain power from behind the scenes, but he'd use his son as a new face for a new policy."

Yet the scenario for a significant move away from autarky may be pure optimism. Kim Il Sung and the official North Korean media have minced no words in denouncing the collapse of socialism in Europe, and they have found ideological soul mates on this score in Beijing. Last month's election--in which 99.78% of registered voters reportedly went to the polls and unanimously endorsed all the official candidates--did not suggest a drift away from social discipline.

"The elections powerfully demonstrated once again the invincible might of our people rallied around the party and the leader in one mind and the incomparable superiority of our country's socialist system," observed Pyongyang's Korean Central News Agency, monitored in Tokyo.

The new Parliament could set the stage for Kim to oversee a stable transfer of power to his son "while he's still healthy and firmly in control," said Teruo Komaki, a senior researcher at the Institute of Developing Economies in Tokyo. The father could still wield influence informally, like China's supreme leader Deng Xiaoping, the theory goes.

"But I don't think there will be any new direction," Komaki said. "North Korea will reaffirm its adherence to orthodox communism."

Choe Kwan Ik, an official at the General Assn. of Korean Residents in Japan--which serves as an unofficial contact point for Pyongyang in Tokyo--said the early election may have been linked to efforts to rationalize the North Korean economy or to adjust the current seven-year economic plan.

But the election had "nothing to do with the transfer of power," Choe said. "I don't believe President Kim will retire for the moment. He has been the symbol of North Korea and the government, and there's no reason for him to retire now--he's still healthy, and there are many things for him to do."

Kim, who fought the Japanese occupation of Korea in the 1930s, was trained in Moscow before World War II. When Soviet forces occupied the northern half of Korea after the Japanese surrender in 1945, Kim was made chairman of the Soviet-sponsored People's Commiteee of North Korea, and soon headed the north's provisional government. Efforts by Moscow and Washington to form a unified government for the entire Korean Peninsula deadlocked, and when the Democratic People's Republic was established in the north in 1948, Kim was its first premier. He became president when that position was created in 1972.

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