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Kim Jong-il begins secret conference in North Korea, or does he?

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Ju Peng/Xinhua/AP Photo

(Read caption) In this Aug. 27 photo released by China's official Xinhua news agency, Chinese President Hu Jintao, right, meets with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il in Changchun, in northeast China's Jilin province. Reports say Kim Jong Il is hosting a political conference in North Korea.

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A veil of secrecy enshrouds the deliberations of delegates to a conference of the ruling Workers’ Party in Pyongyang that just about everyone except the North Koreans is saying has to do with the succession from Kim Jong-il to third son Kim Jong-un.

So secret is the gathering that it’s not even certain the delegates are yet meeting. All that’s known for sure is that billboard-size posters have gone up in the North Korean capital extolling the “festive event” as one of “historic” importance.

Amid the speculation as to what the conference, the first since 1966, is about, is the possibility that it will produce nothing quite definable as “news.” Rather, it may be a chance for Kim Jong-il to engineer power shifts within the party in order to ensure his son’s ascent to heights for which he may not be prepared.

A reshuffle?

That’s pretty much the view of Andrei Lankov, a Russian who studied in Pyongyang years ago and now teaches at Kookmin University in Seoul, South Korea. In the two previous conferences of the Workers’ Party, in 1958 and 1966, he has written, the purpose was “to formalize the results of severe purges in the top leadership and ‘elect’ new leaders, free from ‘unmasked anti-party enemies.’ ”

In other words, Kim Jong-il may believe that housecleaning is needed to persuade possibly recalcitrant military people that son Jong-un, in his late 20s, is the man for the top job. Mr. Kim dominates such military people as chairman of the National Defense Commission, the country's real center of power.

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