North Korea Reshuffles Top Posts

North Korea made some changes at the top of the government on Monday. Robert Siegel talks to NPR's Mike Shuster, who says there appears to be confirmation that North Korean leader Kim Jong Il's youngest son will eventually succeed him. The changes came during a session of North Korea’s rubber-stamp parliament. Kim was in attendance, but no close-ups of the ailing leader were seen on North Korean television.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Some changes at the top of the government of North Korea today, and they appear to be confirmation that leader Kim Jong-il's youngest son will eventually succeed him.

The changes came during a session of North Korea's rubber-stamp parliament. Kim was in attendance, but no close-ups of the ailing leader were seen on North Korean television. NPR's Mike Shuster joins us from Seoul in South Korea, and Mike, what seems to be thrust of the changes, and why now?

MIKE SHUSTER: Well, it seems that this is all about the succession of leadership in North Korea. We know that Kim Jong-il, North Korea's leader, had a stroke a couple of years ago, and we also know he's wanted to designate his youngest son, Kim Jong-un, to succeed him. And now it looks like the appointments that were announced today make that formal.

And the key appointment is Kim Jong-il's brother-in-law, his name is Jang Song-thaek, as the number two in the government.

SIEGEL: But he is not of the younger generation, I assume. He's of the same generation as Kim Jong-il?

SHUSTER: Exactly. They're almost the same age. Jang Song-thaek is in his late 60s. He's had a long career in North Korea's leadership, and it's sometimes been up and sometimes been down. This time, it looks like he's up again. And for more than a year, it's believed he has been acting as an advisor to Kim Jong-il's youngest son.

The young Kim has had no experience either as a political leader or a military leader, and it's believed that Jang, the brother-in-law, has held an informal position as a kind of regent for the young Kim.

Now, what's happened is that Jang's position appears to have been formalized as vice chairman of the National Defense Commission, which is the highest government body in North Korea. Jang will take what may be the second-highest position in North Korea's government, but again, it's all about succession. He apparently favors the hereditary succession of Kim, the son, and has been put in this position to ensure that that is what will take place either when Kim Jong-il dies or he's too sick to continue leading the country.

SIEGEL: And other appointments announced today in North Korea?

SHUSTER: Well, there were a number of them, but probably the most important is the appointment of Choe Yong Rim to be premier, and this has to do with the disastrous currency reform that was carried out late last year and that actually produced some unrest around the country in North Korea, and it had to be withdrawn. It was essentially seen as a confiscation of what little money North Koreans had accumulated.

The old premier had to apologize for that, and now he's gone. And the new premier, Choe, is 81 years old, Robert. So we're not talking about someone who will be expected to carry out any reform. But he has been a trusted aide to Kim Jong-il and before him to Kim Jong-il's father, Kim Il-sung, for many years.

SIEGEL: But that change, you say, was about economic and currency issues, not about the crisis with South Korea over the torpedo attack on the South Korean naval vessel?

SHUSTER: No, and it doesn't seem that this was even discussed at the rubber-stamp parliament that put all of these appointments into implementation. At that meeting, it does not seem that they discussed the problem with South Korea, but they continue to issue broadsides against the South Korean government for it nevertheless.

SIEGEL: Okay, thank you, Mike.

SHUSTER: You're welcome.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's Mike Shuster, speaking to us from Seoul, South Korea, about the changes at the top in North Korea.

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