Image: South Korean soldiers at the DMZ
Lee Jin-man  /  AP
South Korean soldiers look toward North Korea at the Dora Observation Post in the heavily guarded zone that separates the two Koreas. North Korea warned South Korea and the United States on Wednesday that Seoul's participation in a U.S.-led program to intercept ships suspected of carrying weapons of mass destruction is equal to a declaration of war.
updated 5/27/2009 6:16:31 PM ET 2009-05-27T22:16:31

On the streets of Pyongyang, posters depict workers soaring into the sky alongside a long-range rocket — part of a 150-day campaign to spur North Koreans to work harder by instilling them with national pride.

Some suspect the push is not just a "let's-work-harder" drive but a political campaign designed to cement national unity as the regime sets the stage for the communist nation's next leader.

North Korea launched a rocket April 5 in defiance of international calls for restraint. On Monday, the regime tested a nuclear bomb underground. While world powers debate how to punish the regime, analysts say Pyongyang may also have another audience in mind: its own people.

Cheong Seong-chang of the Sejong Institute, a South Korean security think tank, believes North Korea is using the 150-day campaign to parade its achievements in a bid to bolster national pride.

"It's politically driven," he said.

The five-month campaign is set to culminate in early October, about the time of the anniversary of the founding of the ruling Workers' Party. North Korea could then hold a national convention — its first in nearly 30 years — to announce a successor to aging leader Kim Jong Il, Cheong said.

"I think the campaign is aimed at building up achievements that the successor can later claim credit for," he said.

Is a succession announcement near?
Kim, 67, reportedly suffered a stroke in August 2008, sparking regional concerns about instability and a possible power struggle if he died without naming a successor. He has three grown sons, but he has not said publicly who will become head of the nation of 24 million.

The eldest, Kim Jong Nam, appeared to fall from favor after he was caught trying to sneak into Japan on a fake Dominican passport, allegedly to get to Disneyland.

A former employee of Kim's said the leader considers his middle son, Kim Jong Chol, as too effeminate for the job, although a high-profile defector told a South Korean newspaper he still has a chance.

Most analysts, including Cheong, think Kim's youngest son, 26-year-old Kim Jong Un, is his favorite and has the best chance of succeeding the authoritarian leader.

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Cheong sees signs the regime may be gearing up to make a succession announcement.

Cheong noted that North Korea founder Kim Il Sung arranged for his son to take credit for a "70-day battle" before he was tapped in 1974 to succeed his father. The succession decision was made public in a 1980 convention. Kim Jong Il formally assumed leadership upon his father's death in 1994.

Last year, North Korea launched a national economic development drive aimed at turning the impoverished nation into a "great, prosperous and powerful nation" by 2012 — the centennial of Kim Il Sung's birth.

Kim Jong Il was said to want to name his successor in 2012. But health concerns may have sped up the timing, analysts said, with the 2012 date moved forward to what's been billed in the North as a "150-day battle."

"He can't postpone it any longer, considering his health," Cheong said.

'He's running out of time'
Kim must address three main issues before his health worsens: establishing security by normalizing relations with the U.S., strengthening the economy and naming a successor.

"The nuclear test shows that Kim feels he's running out of time," said Kim Yong-hyun of Seoul's Dongguk University.

Communist North Korea is one of the world's most isolated nations and has few sources of help since the demise of the Soviet Union. China has cut back on its once-generous sponsorship. A decade of South Korean handouts ended when conservative President Lee Myung-bak took office last year, pinning aid to nuclear disarmament.

The underground blast was a bold gambit to dramatically raise tensions, and perhaps panic the U.S. into offering aid, Kim said.

North Korea also has custody of two U.S. journalists, Laura Ling and Euna Lee, accused of entering the country illegally in March and engaging in "hostile" acts. They are to stand trial June 4.

"He wants to settle all problems through a package deal with the U.S.," he said. "That's why he is putting forward all his negotiating cards."

'150-day battle'
Kim Jong Il may also want to shore up support at home for a smooth succession, analysts said.

"I think the succession plan is still taking hold and (the nuclear test) is a way of solidifying the transfer of power," said Peter Beck, a Korean affairs expert at American University in Washington. "In the wake of the missile test, it was clearly for domestic consumption."

Both the rocket launch, which North Korea called a successful bid to send a satellite into space, and the nuclear test were praised as achievements displaying the country's might and scientific skill.

Thousands of North Koreans and uniformed soldiers held a rally Tuesday to celebrate the atomic blast, shouting "Hurray!" and clapping, according to video from APTN North Korea. A banner at the Pyongyang Indoor Gymnasium read: "Long live the great victory of the military first policy."

As part of the 2012 drive, construction projects began sprouting up across Pyongyang last year. Visitors reported seeing new apartment buildings rising, old buildings getting a facelift and roads being paved.

Now, posters touting the "150-day battle" urge building an economy impervious to foreign pressure, according to recent visitors to Pyongyang.

It was even referred to when the North announced it had conducted a nuclear test. The blast "is greatly inspiring the army and people of the (North) all out in the 150-day campaign," a statement said.

'Let's all become winners'
The official Korean Central News Agency and the Rodong Sinmun newspaper have mentioned the campaign nearly every day since early this month, saying factories and workers across the country are exceeding their production goals.

This week, APTN video showed an apartment complex under construction when the North announced it "successfully" conducted its nuclear test. Pyongyang's streets looked like business as usual, with uniformed schoolchildren marching and singing a song lauding Kim, as others casually strolled along.

"Let's run like a storm, riding on a flying horse," one street poster said. "Let's all become winners in the 150-day battle."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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