N. Korean Leader Promotes Relative to No. 2 Post for Succession Scheme
SEOUL (Yonhap) -- North Korea promoted leader Kim Jong-il's brother-in-law in a rare parliamentary session on June 7 in what appeared to be one of the strongest signals that a hereditary power succession is under way.
In a sudden and major reshuffle in the North's senior government posts, North Korea named Jang Song-thaek as a vice chief of the National Defense Commission (NDC), the most powerful institution in the country, in the third session of the 12th Supreme People's Assembly (SPA).
The 65-year-old Jang, also the director of the administration department of the Workers' Party, was already considered the second most powerful man in North Korea along with four other vice chiefs of the NDC who have been in their positions for years.
Kim Jong-il attended the second parliamentary session of the year, the North's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported. The 68-year-old North Korean leader was absent from the previous session of the SPA held on April 9.
Jang was already one of the 13 members of the commission before his promotion at the SPA, which has been scrutinized for hints into Pyongyang's power hierarchy and policy aims.
The promotion could signal that a power transfer to Kim's youngest son, Jong-un, is well underway as Jang is widely believed to be a key supporter of the younger Kim. The promotion also suggests Kim Jong-il is considering an oligarchy should he be prevented from ruling the impoverished communist country.
"Jang is now in the most favorable position to take over the country should Kim become incapacitated," Koh Yu-hwan, a North Korean affairs professor at Seoul's Dongguk University, said. "He'll head the oligarchy and guide Jong-un."
The 687-member parliament gives routine approval to an array of policy aims and Cabinet shake-ups. No details concerning policy directives were mentioned in the initial media reports.
The KCNA report, which did not mention policy directives this time, added that Choe Yong-rim, chief of the Pyongyang department for the ruling party, replaced Kim Yong-il as premier of the Cabinet. Choe is reported to be an aide of Jong-un
Chairman Choe Thae-bok made an opening address, according to the KCNA report. "Discussed at the session were agenda items on the recall and election of the premier of the (North Korean) Cabinet and organizational matters," the report said.
The outgoing premier Kim Yong-il was the main architect of the country's disastrous currency redenomination last November.
The newly-appointed premier gave a speech at a mass rally on May 30, where as many as 100,000 people reportedly denounced South Korea and the United States for blaming Pyongyang for the sinking of a South Korean warship in March.
Forty-six seamen died in the sinking, for which North Korea denies any involvement. Citing a multinational investigation, South Korea concluded that a North Korean submarine torpedoed the Cheonan near the Yellow Sea border on March 26.
During the legislative session, North Korea did not make any announcement on Jong-un's official title. It also did not handle issues on the Cheonan incident in which it has vehemently denied involvement.
Choe has been rumored to be an aide to Kim Jong-un, as the young man is reportedly leading an ambitious project aimed at building 100,000 new housing units in the capital, Prof. Koh said.
Koh also said that the selection of Choe, 81, a long-time political bureaucrat, highlights that Kim is focusing on politics rather than the economy.
In April, the parliament pledged efforts to normalize production in the light and agricultural industries while making an unspecified revision to the North Korean constitution.
Kim Jong-il missed the previous meeting of the rubber-stamp SPA, which typically meets once a year to approve bills put forth by the Workers' Party. No reason was given for holding the rare second session this time.
North Korea outlined its goal to boost production of basic necessities and food in a New Year's Day editorial, suggesting it is trying to reassert state control of market activities.
As part of a bid to curb the burgeoning merchant class, North Korea implemented a surprise currency reform last November, but it backfired, worsening food shortages and triggering social unrest in some parts of the country, officials here say.
Both the reshuffle and the special SPA session came as the North is reportedly dealing with a broken economy and soaring inter-Korean tension caused by the Cheonan incident.
Worse yet, North Korea's economic woes are likely to become worse as South Korea has put in force a ban on trade with the communist neighbor after it found Pyongyang responsible for the Cheonan sinking.
Since the North Korean leader's health deteriorated after a stroke in 2008, he has relied more on his own relatives, most notably Jang and Kim Kyong-hui -- Jang's wife and Kim Jong-il's younger sister -- to maintain his grip on power, according to Seoul intelligence officials.
The high-level changes also include the replacement of six vice premiers as well as Cabinet ministers involved with light industry, sports, food and daily necessities.
In the reshuffle, Kang Nung-su, Kim Rak-hui, Ri Thae-nam and Jon Ha-chol were appointed as vice-premiers of the Cabinet.
Jo Pyong-ju was named minister of the Machine-Building Industry; Han Kwang-bok as minister of the Electronics Industry; An Jong-su as minister of the Light Industry; Jo Yong-chol as minister of the Foodstuff and Daily Necessities Industry; and Pak Myong-chol as minister of Physical Culture and Sports.