- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 9, 2009

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korea’s rubber-stamp parliament appointed Kim Jong Il to a third term Thursday as leader of one of the world’s most reclusive nations, buoyed by a rocket launch heralded in state media as “historic” but assailed elsewhere as provocative.

State media said lawmakers approved Kim as chairman of the powerful National Defense Commission at the opening session of the new parliament, an appointment that under the constitution makes him the nation’s top leader.

But there was no confirmation in a noon (0300 GMT) broadcast on state TV that Kim himself was presiding over the session in what would be his first major public appearance since reportedly suffering a stroke last August.

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Kim, 67, fell out of sight in mid-August. He failed to attend a milestone 60th anniversary parade in September, a no-show that sparked concerns about his health and fears of a succession crisis in the nuclear-armed nation. Pyongyang denies he was ill.

Kim re-emerged in state media in early October and has steadily visited farms, factories and military units for “on-the-spot field guidance” in an energetic tour widely seen as an attempt to squelch rumors about his health.

However, recent photos of the once-pudgy leader show him looking frail and extremely thin, having lost his burgeoning belly. Images released March 19 by the Korean Central News Agency show Kim gripping the railings of a swimming pool to hold himself upright.

North Korea has sought to build unity and support for Kim in the days preceding the opening session of the country’s 12th parliament, first with a controversial rocket launch on Sunday and then with a series of documentaries paying homage to his leadership.

North Koreans got their first glimpse Tuesday of the rogue regime’s rocket launch, more than two days after a liftoff decried by the U.S., Japan, South Korea and other nations as a provocation that merits international censure.

North Korea claimed that it successfully put a communications satellite into orbit and that it was transmitting data and playing patriotic odes to Kim and his father, the country’s founder.

U.S. and South Korean military officials say nothing ever made it into orbit and accuse Pyongyang of using the launch to test its long-range missile technology. Washington, calling the launch of a three-stage rocket a bold violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions barring North Korea from ballistic missile-related activity, is leading the push for council condemnation.

However, debate remains stalled, with North Korea’s closest ally, China, and Russia maintaining calls for restraint. North Korea’s deputy U.N. ambassador, Pak Tok Hun, has warned Pyongyang will take “strong steps” if the Security Council takes any action.

State TV also broadcast the first footage of Kim since his August disappearance, showing him in short sleeves in early August at a pig farm before jumping without explanation to late November, when he was shown bundled up in a parka and thick gloves.

On Thursday morning, a patriotic montage on state TV touted the country’s best, with the military featured prominently in nearly every scene. Soldiers fired tanks, flew MiG fighter jets, went on patrol as the sun set and helped smiling farmers in lush fields.

And there was Kim, in a parka and hat exhorting officers in a sports stadium, reviewing troops, getting briefings from white-uniformed naval officers and smiling benevolently as he appeared to give advice. Some of the scenes were clearly file footage.

State media reported Kim’s official appointment at midday. Experts say the “re-election” consists of legislators holding up their badges to approve the decision. There was no mention of Kim’s participation.

“Having comrade Kim Jong Il at the highest post of our country again is a great honor and happiness for our military and people and a great happy event for all Korean people,” a newscaster said on state TV.

As the nation’s top military chief, Kim rules under a policy of “songun” — or “military first” — overseeing a 1.19 million-strong armed forces that is one of the world’s largest. His position as head of the National Defense Commission makes him leader of the nation, while his late father remains “eternal president.”

Kim also is the top official in the powerful Workers’ Party and supreme commander of the army.

Outside observers will be watching Kim closely for clues to his health and any signs he may be laying the groundwork for a successor. Recent photos of the once-pudgy leader revealed he has lost considerable weight.

The legislature may also pass a resolution on Sunday’s rocket launch, which North Korea says was part of efforts to build a solid space program in time for the 100th birthday of late founder Kim Il Sung, in 2012, analyst Yang Moo-jin of the University of North Korean Studies said in Seoul.

Choi Choon-heum, a senior research fellow at the Korea Institute of National Reunification, said the rocket launch shows Pyongyang is pushing ahead with ambitions to develop an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of striking the U.S.

Kim has ruled the impoverished nation of 24 million with absolute authority since his father’s death in 1994, allowing no dissent or opposition. The two Kims have thrived on an intense cult of personality, with their portraits hanging in nearly every room. Many North Koreans wear badges with the founder’s image.

It’s unclear whether the communist dynasty will extend to a third generation. None of Kim’s three sons was elected to parliament in March, and they are not believed ready to assume the leadership mantle.

Associated Press writers Jae-soon Chang and Kwang-tae Kim contributed to this report.

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