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2009/04/16 10:59 KST
NORTH KOREA NEWSLETTER NO. 50 (April 16, 2009)

   *** TOPIC OF THE WEEK (Part 1)

N.K. Reelects Kim Jong-il as Military Chief, Promotes In-law to Key Post

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- North Korea's parliament reelected leader Kim Jong-il as its top military commander and promoted his brother-in-law to a powerful military post on April 9 in possible signs that Kim is gathering his confidantes to prepare for a power transfer.

   In a crucial first plenary session of the 12th-term Supreme People's Assembly (SPA), the North also decided to revise its constitution for the first time in 11 years, the state media said. Amid damaged relations with South Korea's conservative government, the North removed an inter-Korean cooperation committee from its Cabinet.

   Kim made his first major appearance since his reported stroke last summer as the rubber-stamp SPA reappointed him as chairman of the National Defense Commission (NDC), the highest military decision-making body. His reappointment reflects "all the servicepersons and people's expression of unquestioned support and trust in him," the official Korean Central News Agency said.

   Amid signs of recuperation from his illness, Kim, 67, promoted his brother-in-law, Jang Song-thaek, as a member of the NDC. Jang, currently a department director of the Workers' Party, was spotted frequently with Kim during the leader's field trips this year, an indication that he had become the aging leader's right-hand man.

   "Overall, the power of the National Defense Commission was strengthened," Seoul's Unification Ministry spokesman, Kim Ho-nyoun, said in a briefing. The newly elected parliament increased the number of the NDC members to 13 from eight and bringing in new members from outside the military.

   The SPA "solemnly declared internally and externally" that Kim was elected as chairman of the National Defense Commission, the North's state-run Korean Central News Agency said. Kim was initially named chief of the commission in 1993 a year before the death of his father, Kim Il-sung. He was re-elected to the post in 1998 and 2003.

   Pyongyang revised its constitution in 1998 to strengthen the defense commission as "the supreme military leadership" in charge of all defense policies and military actions, making Kim the nation's leader under its Songun or "military-first" politics. The commission holds the right to appoint and dismiss key military officials, declare war or issue mobilization orders.

   The first meeting of the SPA is politically notable as its agenda includes the renewal of Kim's term, approval for shake-ups in the Cabinet and the military and ratifications of foreign policy directives.

   The new legislature was convened at a time when Seoul, Washington and Tokyo were to strengthen U.N. sanctions against the socialist country in response to the North's rocket launch on April 5. Prior to the parliamentary session, the North held a massive rally on April 8 where about 10,000 people gathered to celebrate the rocket launch and praise Kim.

   Pyongyang claims to have successfully put a communications satellite into orbit, a claim refuted by Washington and Seoul. The North's state-run television, which normally starts broadcasting at 5 p.m. on weekdays, tried to build up a festive mood by airing a documentary film trumpeting Kim's leadership at 9 a.m. on April 9.

   The parliament gave no word about regional tensions, while the international community strove for ways to respond to the country's rocket launch. Eight days after the North's rocket launch, the U.N. Security Council on April 13 unanimously condemned the action, demanded an end to missile tests and said it will expand sanctions against the country. Hours later, Pyongyang struck back at the U.N. statement by announcing it would pull out of the six-party talks and restart its nuclear program in Yongbyon facilities.

   Pyongyang's media reports have linked the rocket launch and Kim's reappointment to the country's economic campaign to build a "great, prosperous and powerful socialist nation" by 2012, the centennial anniversary of Kim Il-sung's birth.

   Analysts noted there was no major reshuffle of the new parliament, as old members stayed on, a sign Kim wants to keep the status quo while grooming his heir. But the country's appointments also revealed North Korea's views of its recent rocket launch. Kim promoted Ju Kyu-chang, a party member who played a key role in preparing the launch as a missile expert and who stood next to Kim in a photograph taken in celebration, as a member of the NDC.

   The North state media said lawmakers approved a motion for a constitutional amendment -- the first in 11 years -- but gave no further details. An amendment in 1992 helped transfer military command to Kim from his father and then President Kim Il-sung. Lawmakers "adopted the ordinance of the SPA 'On revising and supplementing the Socialist Constitution of the DPRK (North Korea)' with a unanimous approval," the KCNA said.

   North Korea's government budget will show growth of 5.2 percent from last year, with a big share of it going to economic development and the "improvement of the standard of people's living," the report said. Its defense budget, 15.8 percent of the total, is the same as last year, it said. The report gave no actual amounts, but the North's budget revenue this year is expected to be 482.6 billion won (US$3.45 billion), and its defense budget 76.25 million won, based on previous information.

   In what appeared to be a response to South Korea's conservative Lee Myung-bak government, the North abolished a committee on economic cooperation with South Korea from its Cabinet, which was set up amid friendlier ties in 2004. Major inter-Korean economic ventures were shut down last year as political relations fell apart. The North also threatened the last remaining such project, a joint industrial complex in the North's border town of Kaesong, last month.

   The parliamentary elections were postponed last year, apparently due to his illness. Compared to recent years, Kim has nearly tripled his number of field inspections in the past three months, revving up the economic drive. Among his 44 trips so far, there were 20 to industrial facilities, while 13 were military visits, according to Seoul's Unification Ministry.

   Analysts have said Jang may play a caretaking role for Kim's successor, likely to be one of his three sons. Some sources say Kim has named his youngest son, Jong-un, as his heir, but Seoul's intelligence officials say there is no hard evidence to prove that.

   Tied by family relations and with his political savvy, Jang, 63, has been Kim's close confidant and has drawn people around him. But in a society where all power is concentrated in one person, Jang's growing influence may have been understood as a challenge to Kim's monarchy and led to punishment in the past. In one case, Jang disappeared from public sight in 2004 for more than a year, amid reports he was suspended from duties for inciting factionalism.

   Jang returned to center stage, rejoining Kim's entourage on field trips, in early 2006, and is believed to have solidified his status as No. 2 when the leader fell ill.