Seoul (AsiaNews) Tomorrow February 16, Kim Jong-il will celebrate his 63rd birthday, whilst yesterday, the army's top brass were in the capital to renew their vows of absolute loyalty to the "Dear Leader".
It is not too difficult to see a linkage between these two events. They both signal that something is changing in North Korea's top leadership. However, what type of changes are taking place depends on where you are.
In South Korea, many think that the North Korean leader is grooming his son to replace him as his father, Kim Il-sung, did for him.
"If I cannot achieve this sacred task [the revolution] in my lifetime, my son will do it. If my son cannot, my grandson will," the late senior Kim was quoted as saying on North Korean television on January 27.
By speaking of Kim Il-sung's 'grandson' in terms of the teachings of the 'Great leader' the regime's propagandists are embracing the notion of dynastic succession as part of the regime's ideology. This way Kim Il-sung's decision to pass his power from father to son will be perpetuated.
North Korea's population remains the regime's target audience, a population that is supposed to be living in a paragon of proletarian democracy under regime that is however increasingly becoming the butt of jokes in the 21st century.
There must be good reasons for its leaders to accept such derision. And it is not too hard to see why.
In South Korea, analysts inside and outside the intelligence community are convinced that Kim Jong-il is grooming his son in the same way that he was groomed in the 1970s. And they point to parallels between then and now.
Back in 1971, a North Korean Communist Party's magazine published an editorial justifying hereditary succession. Three years later, Kim Jong-il was presented as his father's successor.
In 1976, North Korea's then Number Kim Young-ju, younger brother to the 'Great Leader' and a potential rival, disappeared from public view leaving the scene open to Kim Jong-il who was officially anointed successor by the Party's General Assembly in 1980.
History is now repeating itself. Until a few months ago, Jang Song-thaek, Kim Jong-il's brother-in-law and the Party's Number Two man, was the official successor. Now, South Korean experts expect Kim Jong-il to choose his son Kim Jong-chol, 24, as his heir. The younger Kim studied in Berne (Switzerland) in the 1990s and over the last year has been learning the ropes necessary to run the Party apparatus.
Contrary to the prevailing view in South Korea, some European observers see what is happening as part of a power struggle among North Korea's inner circle. For Glyn Ford, British Labour MEP, vice-chairman of the European Parliament's Delegation with Relations to Japan and an East Asia specialist, the January 27 statement is another sign of a political battle that has been going on at the top since spring of last year.
Kim Jong-il is thought to have won since Jang Song-thaek was removed in April. However, this was not so much designed to open the way to his son but rather to force the military to toe the line.
But the power struggle does not seem to have ended there. In May a powerful explosion rocked Ryong Chon railway station only a few hours after the 'Dear Leader' passed through on his way home from a visit to China. For many observers this was not an accident but an assassination attempt against Kim Jong-il. Ten pro-China officials are said to have been arrested following the incident.
In September a political commentator on state-television exhorted the people to defend the Party's unity. "The Party," he said, "cannot exist if it allows factions to form within". Given the ongoing power struggle, the statement had a clear message. And then in December about 40 per cent of the top secretaries were removed.
However accurate either view is, all analysts agree that something is going on in the inner circle of North Korea's power structure. Will the outcome be good or bad? Time will tell.
But what is now clear is that the announcement by North Korea's Foreign Ministry that it was boycotting the six-nation talks over its nuclear programme does not bode well.
And it also clear that the relatives of the dozens of North Korean refugees pitilessly repatriated in mid-January from China and who ended up executed by the regime will still be mourning . . . in secret.