Audio Transcript:

North Korea appears to be gearing up for a major political milestone. A big meeting this week is expected to formally announce ailing leader Kim Jong-il's youngest son as his heir. If the transition proceeds smoothly, it would be the first time in Communist history that power passes to the third generation in a dynasty. But that's far from a sure thing. The World's Mary Kay Magistad reports from Beijing.

MARCO WERMAN: I'm Marco Werman and this is The World, a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston. North Korea appears to be gearing up for a major political milestone. A big meeting this week is expected to formally announce ailing leader Kim Jong-Il's youngest son as his heir. Kim Jong-un is believed to be 27 years old. If the transition proceeds smoothly, it would be the first time in Communist history that power passes to the third generation in a dynasty. But that's far from a sure thing. The World's Mary Kay Magistad reports from Beijing.

MARY KAY MAGISTAD: The North Korean army has an anthem that honors Kim Jong-Il, and his ?army first? policy. It goes, ?You pushed away the maelstrom. You made us believe. Comrade Kim Jong-Il, we are unable to live without you." But sooner or later, they're going to have to try. Though Kim Jong-Il is just 68 years old, he's frail and gaunt, two years after a stroke, and cementing his succession seems to be on his mind. Just over a week ago, the elder Kim was said to have brought his son, Kim Jong-un with him to northeastern China. A Chinese government spokesperson said the visit was so Kim could see China's economic development. Some analysts believe it was to get China on-side with the leadership transition that will come. Glyn Ford, a former British Labor member of the European parliament, and author of a book on North Korea, has just paid one of his frequent visits to Pyongyang. He says he saw signs of preparations for the big Party conference expected to be held this week.

GLYN FORD: On the streets of Pyongyang, the symbol of the Party is everywhere. I mean you got the hammer, sickle and calligraphy brush virtually decorating 80% of the posters and the ones that it isn't decorating are the ones that have been there for decades.

MAGISTAD: Ford says his North Korean contacts told him what to expect from the Party Conference, the first since 1966, and the biggest Party meeting of any kind since Kim Jong-Il was named successor to his father, Kim Il Sung, in 1980.

FORD: They're expected to be significant changes at the top of the Party, with subsequent knock-on effects both within the Supreme People's Assembly, and the Ministries, and possibly even the military.

MAGISTAD: North Korean state television is airing public announcements, telling people to support what it calls, ?the auspicious event, which will forever shine in the annals of our Party and Fatherland.? But the last time a future successor was announced in North Korea, Kim Jong-Il still had 14 years with his father around, to gather allies around him and cement his place. Meanwhile, the masses learned to call him ?The Dear Leader,? to his father's ?The Great Leader.? Kim Jong-un, by contrast, is barely known to most North Koreans and does not yet have a power base to support him. And the economy, which is about 3% the size of South Korea's, and largely dependent on China, is in much worse shape than when Kim Jong-Il came to power. A misguided attempt last year to revalue the currency and roll back free market reforms did extra damage. North Korea specialist Andrei Lankov, who's based in Seoul, believes there will be rocky times ahead.

ANDREI LANKOV: In the long run, the system is not sustainable. A crisis will happen. When, I have no clue. I would say that for the next few years at least, we will see more of the same. Nuclear talks, breakthroughs which mean absolutely nothing and lead nowhere, hypes about reforms which will be forgotten in a few months. What will happen after death of Kim Jong-Il, well God knows. But I believe that elite understands very well that they have to hang together in order not to be hanged separately.

MAGISTAD: Lankov suspects the old guard elites won't mind having a weak, young successor to Kim, because they can guide him, and keep the system going that's kept them comfortable thus far. But China, which has been supplying North Korea with much of its fuel and food, has been pushing Pyongyang to walk the free market path. China, too, may see a young, weak leader as a conduit for making that happen. Much depends on how long the elder Kim is around to shore up his son's support, and secure his own legacy. That game has begun, and this week, one of the key moves is expected to be played. For The World, I'm Mary Kay Magistad in Beijing.