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North Korea Reshuffles Parliament

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Ailing North Korean ruler Kim Jong Il has changed the government in yet another move seen as trying to pave the way for his 27-year-old son to succeed him. Like everything in North Korea, the succession politics are murky. Brian Myers, an expert on North Korea at Dongseo University in South Korea, talks to Steve Inskeep to try to shed light on the changes.

DEBORAH AMOS, host:

This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Deborah Amos.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

North Korea has made some changes in its government. There is no change at the top. Kim Jong Il is in charge, like his father before him. Two officials moved into high positions just below the top, and that may offer insight into who's the next ruler for a nuclear-armed state.

The changes are very closely followed in South Korea, where we've reached Brian Myers. He's at Dongseo University in South Korea.

Thanks very much for joining us.

Professor BRIAN MYERS (International Studies, Dongseo University, South Korea): Thank you for having me.

INSKEEP: Now, what are the jobs for which North Korea's parliament was hiring?

Prof. MYERS: The ruling body in North Korea is something called the National Defense Commission. And what happened as a result of this Cabinet reshuffle was that a man who had just been one of the members of that National Defense Commission was promoted to vice chairman, and that person is none other than Kim Jong Il's brother-in-law, Jang Song-taek.

INSKEEP: So he ends up in a very prominent position, the number two position just below Kim Jong Il, in effect?

Prof. MYERS: Yeah. He does. And this is actually enhancing speculation he will be holding the true power in North Korea for at least sometime after Kim Jong Il's death.

INSKEEP: Although there had been talk about Kim Jong Il passing power, not to his brother-in-law, but to one of his sons.

Prof. MYERS: Yeah. Well, that is probably what is going to happen, ultimately. But Kim Jong-un, who is the son in question, is in his late 20s, and most of the people in the top ranks of the government are in their 70s and 80s. So it seems unlikely that a young and untried leader will be able to take full command at once. So that's why people are figuring that Jang Song-taek is going to be pulling the strings in the background for a least a few months, if not longer.

INSKEEP: So we have a relative of Kim Jong Il, North Korea's ruler, moving into a position where he can shepherd Kim Jong Il's relatively young son into power, perhaps. But Kim Jong Il has a couple of older sons. Why are they not being considered?

Prof. MYERS: Well, there's lots of speculation about that. Unfortunately, we don't really have any authoritative sources for them. But we know that his oldest son, Kim Jong-nam, who's in his late 30s, is in Macau at the moment, living kind of a party lifestyle. He's obviously out of the question. We've heard that Kim Jong-chul, who's the second son, was perceived by Kim Jong Il as being too feminine and therefore not right for the post. So the choice seems to have fallen to Kim Jong-un, even though he's only about 27 or 28.

INSKEEP: We're talking with Brian Myers in South Korea about a change in the power structure in North Korea, or at least in the members at the top of the power structure.

And Mr. Myers, I have to ask, this is all happening in the midst of a crisis with South Korea. A South Korean vessel was sunk. North Korea is suspected of doing it. The U.S. and South Korea are trying to figure out how to confront the North. Is this a strange time for the North to be making leadership changes?

Prof. MYERS: Well, not really. I think a Cabinet shuffle after a big domestic failure of some sort is always good politics. We see that kind of thing in the United States, as well. And I think what is uppermost on the minds of the leaders in Pyongyang is probably the currency reform, which was instituted last November and which was a horrible failure.

So I think that the shakeup - in particular, the replacement of the premier -was aimed at palliating public opinion, at showing the people that consequences were being derived from this failure.

INSKEEP: Oh, that was the other top job that was switched. The prime minister was switched out here as part of this.

Prof. MYERS: Right. It's not a particularly important job, but it is a very visible and high-profile one. And Kim Jong Il, who held the post before, was perceived as being very closely associated with the economic matters, and therefore, he probably seems like a pretty good fall guy.

INSKEEP: Brian Myers is at Dongseo University. He joined us from South Korea.

Thanks very much.

Prof. MYERS: Thank you.

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