North Korea Reshuffle May Clear Path For Succession

Kim attending parliament i i

North Korean leader Kim Jong Il (center) attends a rare session of Parliament in Pyongyang on Monday at which Kim's brother-in-law was promoted and the country's prime minister was replaced, state media reported. Korean News Service via AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Korean News Service via AFP/Getty Images
Kim attending parliament

North Korean leader Kim Jong Il (center) attends a rare session of Parliament in Pyongyang on Monday at which Kim's brother-in-law was promoted and the country's prime minister was replaced, state media reported.

Korean News Service via AFP/Getty Images

North Korean leader Kim Jong Il attended an extraordinary session of parliament Monday where some key government posts changed hands, a move seen by many analysts as clearing a path to power for one of his sons.

Kim's brother-in-law, Jang Son Thaek, was promoted to a position widely regarded as second-in-command of the isolated communist state.

Jang is believed to be a supporter of Kim's third son, Kim Jong Un. North Korea watchers believe the new post will allow Jang to use his influence to bring the young man to power after his father's death.

"We know that Kim ... had a stroke a couple of years ago, and continues to be ailing and perhaps even weakening noticeably now," NPR's Mike Shuster tells host Robert Siegel on All Things Considered. "We also know he's wanted to designate his youngest son, Kim Jong Un, to succeed him."

The secrecy and isolation of North Korea's government means that most information about the country must by gleaned from the accounts of defectors and analysts of official government pronouncements.

North Korean Leader Kim Jong Il i i

North Korean Leader Kim Jong Il appears in Pyongyang with military officials in this undated photo released Monday by North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency. Korean News Service via AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Korean News Service via AFP/Getty Images
North Korean Leader Kim Jong Il

North Korean Leader Kim Jong Il appears in Pyongyang with military officials in this undated photo released Monday by North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency.

Korean News Service via AFP/Getty Images

North Korea's parliament, the Supreme People's Assembly, has little real power and normally meets only once a year to approve bills that have been decided by the ruling Workers' Party. The parliament had already held a session in April, and the government gave no reason for holding the unusual second session, but scenes of it were broadcast on North Korea's state-run television.

In another important change, the parliament approved the promotion of Choe Yong Rim to be North Korea's new premier. Choe replaces a former premier who took the blame for a disastrous effort to change North Korea's currency last November.

The currency measure was an apparent effort to give the government more control over the country's emerging market economy. Instead, it triggered inflation and undermined the value of people's savings. The effects were said to be so severe that some people died from starvation.

The new premier, Choe, is seen as a politically astute figure who is close to Kim Jong Il's third son, and who could help the young man assume the country's leadership when his father is no longer able to rule.

"Young Kim has had no experience, either as a political leader or as a military leader, and it's believed that Jang has held an informal position as a kind of regent for the young Kim," Shuster says.

For several years, Kim Jong Il has been reported to be in failing health, so the issue of who will succeed him has been of great concern. Kim was shown presiding over the Monday session of parliament, but at such a distance from the television cameras that it was difficult to assess the state of his health.

"The information we have about North Korea is no more reliable than we had about Mao's China or Stalin's Soviet Union," says Nicholas Eberstadt, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. "And that should be a sign that we should use caution about inferring too much from these developments."

Still, says Eberstadt, "We've got reason to think that Jang is a big deal, because he's part of the family, and he's been very, very close to power for long time."

One sign that Jang is highly trusted, Eberstadt says, is that he has led delegations outside the country, including to negotiations in South Korea.

Eberstadt is wary about speculating that Jang's promotion paves the way for Kim Jong Il's third son. "I can't count the number of times I've heard 'for a certainty,' that [the succession] will be announced next month," he says.

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