SEOUL, South Korea — Huge posters plastered across the North Korean capital hailed the nation's biggest political convention in 30 years as the world watched Monday for signs that the country's next leader was making his public debut.
Party delegates from all corners of North Korea were gathering in Pyongyang, state media said.
The gathering is the Workers' Party's first major meeting since the landmark 1980 congress where Kim Jong Il made his public debut as the reclusive nation's future leader. He took over after his father, North Korea founder Kim Il Sung, died of heart failure in 1994 in what was communism's first hereditary transfer of power.
Now 68 and reportedly suffering from diabetes and other ailments, Kim is believed to be grooming his youngest son, Kim Jong Un, to take the Kim dynasty into a third generation.
The party conference comes amid tensions with Washington and the international community over the North's nuclear program, as well as a standoff with Seoul over the deadly March sinking of a South Korean warship.
However, the regime announced Monday that a seven-member crew of a South Korean fishing boat seized last month in its waters would be released as a humanitarian gesture.
Much about the party conference is left to guesswork, with analysts offering conflicting opinions about whether Kim Jong Un will be publicly heralded as the next leader or quietly handed a stepping-stone position, perhaps waiting to claim power in 2012. North Korea has promised to build a strong and prosperous nation by 2012, the 100th birthday of founder Kim Il Sung.
Very little is known about the twentysomething heir apparent said to be his father's favorite among three sons. His name has never been mentioned in state media.
There was speculation that Kim Jong Il took the son to China on a recent surprise trip to introduce him to top Chinese officials, but there was no mention of Kim Jong Un in dispatches in Chinese or North Korean state media.
On Monday, Pyongyang was festooned with posters urging North Koreans to make the party conference "a festive event that will shine in the history of our country and people."
Dr. Kim Chang Gyong, an assistant professor at the North Korean Academy of Social Science, told Associated Press Television News the party meeting marked a "turning point" for the communist nation.
"I think (the meeting) will serve as an important occasion amid our efforts to build a powerful socialist nation … at a time when there is a historic demand for a new turning point," he said in Pyongyang.
However, there was no confirmation that the convention, which North Korea said in June would take place in "early September," had begun, with the timing kept secret as is typical of the North Korean regime.
Delegates are expected to elect 150 to 250 representatives to the party's Central Committee, as well as a core group of 30 to 40 leaders to the key Political Bureau and other departments, analyst Cheong Seong Chang of the Sejong Institute think tank near Seoul said Monday.
He predicted that preliminary sessions will begin Wednesday, with the main session taking place Thursday — the day North Korea celebrates the 62nd anniversary of the founding of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, the country's official name.
Good Friends, a rights group based in Seoul that claims to have sources inside North Korea, said delegate registration began Saturday for a two-day party conference that starts Wednesday.
South Korea's defense minister said military officials were preparing for any situation that might arise if the succession doesn't go smoothly. "I believe North Korea may face many difficulties since Kim Jong Un is a young man, only about 27," Kim Tae Young said Monday at a Seoul forum.
Information from the Washington Post and the New York Times was used in this report.