SEOUL (Reuters) - North Korea’s ruling party has delayed the start of a rare conference due to leader Kim Jong-il’s health, but his condition is not serious enough to cancel the meeting, South Korean television reported on Monday.
The Workers’ Party (WPK) conference, bringing together the secretive state’s ruling elite for the first time in 30 years, was called to pick a new leadership and likely anoint an heir — his youngest son — to the dynasty as Kim’s health deteriorates.
The meeting had been due to start anytime between September 1-15.
With North and South Korea still technically at war, having only signed an armistice in 1953, regional powers are anxious to know what changes are afoot and who will command the nearly 1.2 million troops and another 7.7 million in the reserves.
Kim, 68, is suspected of suffering a stroke in 2008, and failed to appear in public for months until 2009. He also looked frail during trips to China, the isolated North’s only major supporter, over the past few months.
South Korea’s YTN television cited an intelligence official in Seoul as saying he was aware that Kim’s health had worsened after a whirlwind five-day trip to China last month.
The source said Kim’s health concerns were not serious enough to warrant cancelling the meeting, which would open soon.
There was no mention of the conference in North Korean state media, while government officials in Seoul declined comment on the reported delay.
Tensions on the peninsula, meanwhile, are showing signs of easing, with Seoul and Pyongyang making more conciliatory gestures towards each other.
On Monday, the South announced its biggest aid package to its impoverished neighbour in more than two years, and the two agreed to meet in the North Korean border town of Kaesung on Friday to discuss a resumption of reunions of families separated by war.
The apparent thaw has prompted the start of shuttle diplomacy between regional nuclear envoys, fuelling speculation of a resumption in aid-for-disarmament talks.
Tensions rose to their highest level in years in March with the sinking of a South Korean warship, which Seoul and Washington blame on the North. Pyongyang denies any role.
Pyongyang says it wants to return to nuclear disarmament talks, which have been in limbo since 2008 when the mercurial North walked out and said discussions were finished.
Washington’s point man on North Korean affairs, Stephen Bosworth, met South Korean officials on Monday on the first leg of a regional trip amid a push by China to restart the talks.
Bosworth said Washington would continue its strategy of dialogue and negotiation with North Korea, while at the same time enforcing new sanctions.
“I would stress we are not setting any timetables,” he told reporters. “We are not interested in talking just for the sake of talking with the North Koreans.”
“We look for North Korea’s attitude to be expressed through its actions, not simply through its rhetoric.”
In Pyongyang, Workers’ Party delegates have been waiting for days for the start of the biggest political meeting since 1980, when Kim himself began his official role to succeed his father and state founder by taking on a WPK title at the age of 38.
They say Kim’s youngest son, Kim Jong-un, is likely being lined for an official title at the conference.
By signalling Kim Jong-un’s rise, experts say North Korea is readying for a collective father-and-son leadership in years to come, which will cement the family’s grip on power.
Experts say the best case and most market-friendly outcome for succession is an approximate continuation of the current system, which would mostly satisfy regional powers who seek a stable and incremental evolution over a sudden regime collapse.
Additional reporting by Brett Cole and Jack Kim; Editing by Ron Popeski