North Korea holds its biggest political meeting in decades Tuesday, amid intense speculation that members of leader Kim Jong Il's family will assume key positions in the ruling party to solidify their rule for another generation.
It is widely believed that the ruling Worker's Party meeting may pave the way for Kim's youngest son to become his successor, but some experts said the elder Kim's sister, Kim Kyong Hui, might also get a prominent job to oversee a transfer in case the leader dies before the son is ready to take over.
The question of who will take over from Kim Jong Il, who rules with absolute authority but is believed to suffer from a host of ailments, is important to regional security because of North Korea's active nuclear and missile programs, and regular threats it makes against rival South Korea.
Many delegates to the party meeting arrived in Pyongyang on Sunday by train and the city was festooned with flags and placards announcing the event, footage shot by video news service APTN showed. "Warm congratulations to the representatives meeting of the Workers' Party of Korea!" read one poster.
Kim Jong Il took control of North Korea when his father, the North's founder Kim Il Sung, died of heart failure in 1994. He has reportedly groomed third son Kim Jong Un as his heir to power.
A South Korean newspaper reported Monday that the younger Kim was chosen as a military delegate to the conference. The party central committee then put out internal propaganda proclaiming him to be Kim Jong Il's sole successor, the Chosun Ilbo newspaper said, citing a source in North Korea that it did not identify.
Still, some experts said Kim's son may not be ready to officially debut as a successor, which could make the 68-year-old leader promote his sister to a prominent position to help Kim Jong Un eventually run the North.
Kim Kyong Hui, who is married to Russian-educated Jang Song Thaek, vice chairman of the all-powerful National Defense Commission, has emerged as one of Kim's key aides in recent years, experts said.
Kim Jong Il might designate his 64-year-old sister to serve as a caretaker for the third-generation successor after Kim's death, former Japanese Defense Minister and national security advisor Yuriko Koike wrote in a syndicated column earlier this month.
Cheong Seong-chang, a senior fellow at the Sejong Institute think tank near Seoul, shared the view.
"There is a possibility that she could play the role of a coordinator to make sure the power succession goes smoothly," Cheong said.
Koike wrote that Kim Jong Il himself signalled his sister's authority in the communist country in comments before the ruling party's Central Committee, saying "Kim Kyong Hui is myself, the words of Kim Kyong Hui are my words, and instructions issued by Kim Kyong Hui are my instructions."
Koike, now a top official in Japan's Liberal Democratic Party, did not clarify in her column how she knew of these comments.
Kim Kyong Hui, who heads the North Korean ruling party's light industry department, is four years younger than her only biological sibling. Biographical information about her is extremely scarce. But a former sushi chef to Kim Jong Il wrote in a 2003 memoir that Kim Kyong Hui is full of charm when it comes to her brother.
"At banquets, she would sit next to Kim Jong Il and kept on saying, "brother, brother!" Kenji Fujimoto said. "She very much took after her brother."
A small photo in a book published by South Korea's Unification Ministry shows Kim Kyong Hui with a chubby, bespectacled face and wavy, shoulder-length hair. Footage aired last year by Pyongyang's state television showed her dressed in a light gray parka similar to her brother's while she stood side-by-side with him during an inspection trip to a farm.
Koike wrote that Kim Kyong Hui was believed to have a fierce personality, adding that Kim Jong Il is quoted as saying, "When my sister turns violent, no one can stop her. Even I can do nothing."
Jang Sung-min, a former South Korean lawmaker who was involved in foreign affairs, also said Kim Kyong Hui has a fiery personality, citing an unidentified source in Beijing who he says is privy to North Korea affairs.
"Kim Kyong Hui is the only person in the North who can speak frankly to Kim Jong Il and can even be emotional in front of him," said Jang, who authored a book on Kim Jong Il.
Her husband, Jang Song Thaek, was demoted in early 2004 in what analysts believed was a warning from Kim Jong Il against gaining too much influence. But he has since made a political comeback in a rehabilitation engineered by his wife, the former lawmaker said.
Jang returned to power in 2006 and headed the ruling party's department handling administration and capital construction one year later, according to the Unification Ministry.
Both Jang and Kim Kyong Hui have become key officials accompanying Kim Jong Il during field visits to public facilities, which include military units that form the key base of Kim's support.
There was a big jump in the couple's appearances in KCNA in recent years.
"Kim Kyong Hui's frequent appearances in her brother's field trips showed that she is a key person who can play a role in the power succession," said Kim Yong-hyun, a North Korea expert at Seoul's Dongguk University.
Associated Press writers Sangwon Yoon and Kelly Olsen contributed to this report.