- The Washington Times - Friday, April 10, 2009

SEOUL | A visibly grayer and thinner Kim Jong-il proved Thursday that he remains in charge of communist North Korea, presiding over parliament in a triumphant return to center stage after months spent out of the public eye following a reported stroke.

Limping slightly, Mr. Kim arrived at the grand hall housing the 687-seat Supreme People’s Assembly to a standing ovation and praise for a weekend rocket launch heralded as “historic” at home, though assailed in some nations as provocative.

A master at building drama, Mr. Kim fed the world’s curiosity for months about his health after reports said he suffered a stroke and underwent brain surgery in August — though North Korea has denied that he was ever ill.

Thursday’s appearance was his first at a major public event since then. Taped video footage broadcast the same day put to rest any question about whether Mr. Kim had recuperated from the reported stroke, which sparked fears of a succession crisis in the nuclear-armed nation.

Mr. Kim looked healthy, if older, on Thursday, but the weight loss appeared to have been sudden, leaving the skin on his once-pudgy face hanging loosely.

Despite the limp, it was clear “Kim Jong-il has no problem ruling the country,” said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at Seoul’s University of North Korean Studies.

Mr. Kim has ruled the impoverished nation of 24 million with absolute authority since the death of his father, Kim Il-sung, in 1994, allowing no dissent or opposition. Both Kims thrived on an intense cult of personality, with their portraits hanging in nearly every home and public building.

However, none of Kim’s three sons was elected to parliament in March, and they are not thought to be ready to assume the mantle of leadership.

In a significant appointment Thursday, Mr. Kim’s brother-in-law, Jang Song-thaek, a senior member of the Workers’ Party, was named to the powerful defense commission.

Mr. Kim appears to be boosting Mr. Jang’s authority, perhaps to pave the way for him to assume more power, said Cheong Seong-chang, a North Korea analyst at South Korea’s Sejong Institute.

Mr. Jang, who is married to Mr. Kim’s sister, is thought to back Mr. Kim’s youngest son, 26-year-old Jong-un, as his father’s successor.

Pyongyang claims it successfully put a communications satellite into orbit Sunday and that it is transmitting data and playing patriotic odes to Mr. Kim and his father, the country’s founder.

U.S. and South Korean military officials say nothing made it into orbit.

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