North Korea: New clues about who will replace Kim Jong-il

In a rare meeting of parliament Monday, North Korea's leader Kim Jong-il increased the political influence of his brother-in law. The move is seen as supporting the leader's heir apparent – his youngest son – and curbing any power plays within the military.

By , Correspondent

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    North Korean leader Kim Jong-il (3rd l.) visits the Taedonggang Combined Fruit Farm at an undisclosed place in North Korea in this undated picture released by North Korea's official news agency KCNA Monday.
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 North Korean leader Kim Jong-il has elevated his brother-in-law to the post just beneath him on the National Defense Commission in a power play seen as solidifying the succession to Mr. Kim’s youngest son.

The North Korean leader, who rules as chairman of the defense commission, named his brother-in-law, Jang Song-thaek, as commission vice chairman at an emergency session of the Supreme People’s Assembly, a rubber-stamp parliament that was not expected to meet again until next year.

A sign of the importance of the appointment was that Kim Jong-il appeared at the assembly session – but photos of the event offered no new clues about his health. There have been a series of reports that the North Korean leader had a stroke two years ago – all of which the North has denied.

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Mr. Jang, who was already a member of the commission and also head of the administrative department of the ruling Workers’ Party, has long been regarded as the second most powerful figure in the North Korea's ruling structure, His appointment, however, is likely to serve as a strong deterrent to scheming military leaders who might have different ideas.

 “From the beginning he was the second man,” says Kim Tae-woo, a senior analyst with the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses in South Korea. “His appointment is all related to the power succession.”

Jang, 68-year-old husband of the Dear Leader's younger sister, Kim Kyong-hui, assumes the new title at a critical time. Kim is widely believed to be preparing for his youngest son, Kim Jong-eun, still in his 20s, to take over.

Adding to the sense of crisis is the need to fend off accusations from South Korea, the United States, and others of North Korea’s role in torpedoing a South Korean Navy ship, the Cheonan, in March, killing 46 sailors.

North Korea has strongly denied the result of an investigation conducted by South Korea, with international observers, that concluded that a North Korean midget submarine had fired the torpedo. The North Korean media has daily denounced plans to bring the case before the United Nations Security Council as a “provocation” and vowed “punishment.”

New premier appointed

A sign of North Korea’s anxiety to defend itself against calls by South Korea and the US for condemnation by the UN was the appointment of a faithful party hand, Choe Yong-rin, as premier. Mr. Choe, as chief of the Workers’ Party in the capital district, led a rally last week at which 100,000 people reportedly shouted slogans denying that North Korea had staged the attack on the Cheonan.

Kim Jong-il, in elevating Choe, apparently felt the need for a staunch follower to replace the outgoing premier, Kim Yong-il, who had held a number of economic positions taking over the post in 2007. The 81-year-old Choe, 15 years older than Kim Yong-il, is expected to coordinate the response to the Cheonan episode.

Jang’s appointment also is seen as a response to the tensions over the Cheonan sinking. Jang “is well known as as a propaganda person,” says Kim Tae-woo. “He has been useful for diplomacy.” In that sense, says Mr. Kim, his appointment is “kind of a defensive measure.”

What does Kim's oldest son say?

Kim Jong-il has apparently focused on succession since his reported stroke. One person who appears to have lost out completely in the power game is his oldest son, Kim Jong-nam, who spoke to a South Korean reporter last weekend in the gambling center of Macao.

Kim Jong-nam avoided a question as to whether he had said that Kim Jong-eun – his brother – should not be considered to succeed his father. “I do not have any idea of what you just said,” he reportedly answered, according to JoongAng Ilbo, a major South Korean newspaper.

Kim Jong-nam, whose mother was Kim Jong-il's first mistress, a former actress who died in 2002, was reported to have been spreading the word in Macao that Kim Jong-eun should not be eligible for succession since his mother also had been one of his father’s mistresses.

In recent months, however, North Korean propaganda has been referring to Kim Jong-eun’s mother, who died six years ago, as “respected mother,” another sign that he is in line for power.

Kim Jong-nam’s star began to fade after Japanese immigration officials stopped him in 2001 as he was entering Japan with a fake Dominican Republic passport and explained he wanted to visit Tokyo Disneyland.

Kim Jong-nam appeared embarrassed when asked about the sinking of the Cheonan. “I do not know, please stop,” he was quoted as saying.

As for his father, he said he was “doing well. And as for his own health, he responded, “Fine, now are you satisfied?”

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