- Associated Press - Monday, June 7, 2010

SEOUL (AP) — North Korean leader Kim Jong-il’s brother-in-law was promoted and a premier who apologized for a currency debacle was replaced Monday in a rare parliamentary session with strong signs that the secretive nation was preparing a hereditary succession of power.

Mr. Kim was shown on Pyongyang’s state-run television presiding over the session, sitting behind a desk in the middle of a long line of parliamentarians. The scene was shot from a distance, so it was difficult to assess the health of the 68-year-old Mr. Kim, believed to have suffered a stroke two years ago.

The rubber-stamp parliament, or the Supreme People’s Assembly, usually meets once each year to approve bills vetted by the ruling Workers’ Party. The body met in April, and no reason was given for holding Monday’s unusual second session.

But the session came amid worsening economic woes, pressing succession issues and a South Korean campaign to get the United Nations to punish Pyongyang for a ship attack in March that killed 46 sailors. North denies sinking the ship, and state-run media did not say whether parliament discussed the issue, which the South has taken to the United Nations.

Pyongyang’s official Korean Central News Agency said the lawmakers approved a major leadership reshuffle.

The most notable change was the promotion of Mr. Kim’s brother-in-law, Jang Song Thaek. He was named vice chairman of the all-powerful National Defense Commission, which makes security policy. Mr. Jang is widely believed to be a key backer of the North Korean leader’s third son, Jong Un, who several analysts think will be his father’s successor.

Mr. Jang is married to Mr. Kim’s younger sister and is said to be poised to play a kingmaker role. Many believe he may lead a collective leadership after Mr. Kim’s death until the new leader takes over.

Yang Moo-jin, a professor at Seoul-based University of North Korean Studies, said, “Electing Jang Song Thaek to the post of vice chairman officially appoints him as No. 2 in facilitating stable succession of power.”

He added, “With this post, he has been given all responsibility and rights to secure a stable structure for future succession.”

The new premier was identified as Choe Yong Rim, a parliament member who replaces Kim Yong-il, Pyongyang’s official Korean Central News Agency reported.

The former Premier Kim offered a rare public apology in February after a failed currency revamp triggered social unrest and starvation. Last November, citizens were ordered to turn in a limited number of old bills in exchange for new, redenominated currency in an apparent bid to reassert its control over a growing market economy.

But the measure left people with worthless bills while inflation surged because state-run shops couldn’t keep up with demand.

The new premier, Mr. Choe, is a seven-time incumbent member of the North’s parliament who serves as chief secretary of the Pyongyang City Council of the Workers’ Party. The Moscow-educated Mr. Choe, 81, was seen accompanying leader Kim Jong-il when he met former South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun in Pyongyang for a historic summit in 2007, according to Seoul’s Unification Ministry.

Koh Yu-hwan, a North Korea expert at Seoul’s Dongguk University, said that the premier job usually goes to someone with more economic expertise. Mr. Koh said that the North Korean leader’s youngest son reportedly has worked together with Mr. Choe on a construction project, and they are apparently close.

“It’s notable that Choe, who is more of a political figure, has taken the seat,” Mr. Koh said. “Appointing a more politically inclined figure to the position can be seen as a move tied to the succession issue.”


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