North Korean leader Kim Jong Il attended a special -- and rare -- session of the country's parliament on Monday during which his brother-in-law was promoted in a shakeup of top government positions on Monday.
Pyongyang's government-run Korean Central News Agency announced that Jang Son Taek, Mr. Kim's brother-in-law, has been named vice chairman of the North Korea's powerful National Defense Commission during a rare second session of parliament. Mr. Kim is the chairman of that commission, giving him control of the country's armed forces and cementing his status as North Korea's absolute ruler.
Jang is widely seen as a trusted custodian and tutor of the North Korean leader's youngest son, Kim Jong Un. Many analysts believe it is likely the younger Kim will take over the North Korean leadership from his father, as early as 2012.
Senior researcher Cheong Seong-Jang with the Sejong Institute in Seoul said the promotion of Jang could reflect new emerging political strategy in the wake of new tensions with South Korea over the sinking of the South Korean warship, the Cheonan. As the South threatens to resume psychological warfare against the North, Cheong said North Korean intellectuals may now be estranged from the government. As a leading figure among that group, Cheong said Jang Song Taek can do much to prevent intellectuals from distancing themselves from the government or even defecting from the North.
South Korea referred the Cheonan sinking to the United Nations Security Council Friday, after a multinational investigation team concluded a North Korean torpedo attack was the cause. Forty six South Korean sailors were killed in the March incident, which took place near a maritime border long disputed by the North.
Also at Monday's session, the North's premier, Kim Yong Il, was dismissed and replaced by Choe Yong Rim, a senior party official.
Kim Young-soo, a North Korean studies professor at Sogang University in Seoul, believes that move was driven by economic concerns. He said outgoing Premier Kim is being blamed for disastrous currency reforms announced last year. Mr. Choe, his replacement, is being set up to introduce new policies in industry and agriculture.
The North Korean Supreme People's Assembly is very different from other parliaments around the world. It has no mandate to debate and discuss policy. Instead, it ceremonially approves directives issued by government branches under Kim Jong Il's direct control. The assembly has not convened twice in the same year since 2003.