Accessibility links

N. Korean Leadership Shuffle May Be About Succession, Scapegoats

North Korea held a rare second annual session of its parliament this week to change some of the country's top leadership posts. Among them was the replacement of the premier blamed for an economic mistake, and the promotion a family member of leader Kim Jong Il. Regional experts say the moves appear to be about preparing for a post-Kim North Korea.

The North Korean Supreme People's Assembly announced this week the promotion of Jang Song Taek on the country's National Defense Commission, from simply a member, to vice chairman.

The commission, which oversees the armed forces, is one of the most powerful organizations in North Korea's "military first" government. North Korean leader Kim Jong Il's chairmanship of the commission cements his status as the country's unquestioned ruler.

Cheong Seong-jang, a senior researcher at the Sejong Institute in Seoul, says in some ways, Jang can be compared with Kim Jong Il.

Unlike any other leaders in North Korea, he says, Jang has power that spans the Communist Party, the military, and the bureaucracy, much like Kim Jong Il himself. Jang also has extensive human networks in all three sectors, he says, and has much more experience in a number of public sectors than many other North Korean elites.

Jang Song Taek also enjoys another advantage when it comes to getting ahead in North Korea: he is Kim Jong Il's brother-in-law. Experts say that gives him a key role in what has become an urgent priority in Pyongyang, preparing the way for a successor to Mr. Kim.

The North Korean leader is believed to have suffered a stroke in mid-2008, and some media reports say his health is deteriorating. His father, North Korea's revered President Kim Il Sung, groomed him for decades to take power. In sharp contrast, regional analysts think Mr. Kim has only in recent years designated his youngest son, Kim Jong Un, to take his place.

Jang Song Taek is believed to be a trusted guardian and tutor of the younger Kim.

Ko Yu-hwan, a North Korean studies professor at Seoul's Dongkuk University, says Jang will play a key role in passing on power.

Ko says Jang's promotion will help legitimize Kim Jong Un's succession in the case of a Kim Jong Il health emergency or sudden power shift in the North. The younger Kim is still too young to name officially as a successor, he says, but Jang, his guardian, can act as a kind of placeholder. Ko says having Jang and his close associates in place gives Pyongyang flexible policy options.

Yang Moo-jin, a scholar at South Korea's Kyungnam University's Graduate School of North Korean Studies, says even before a succession, Jang will be active.

Yang says Jang Song Taek will play a substantial role in bridging communication between Kim Jong Il and his successor. He will also work on making deals with China that could improve people's lives and help overcome the country's economic crisis. Yang adds that this week's assembly shuffle puts Jang's formal responsibilities more in line the status he already enjoys in the North's power structure.

Economists say the North Korean government experienced a significant loss of face with its people after enacting surprise currency reforms last November. The measures rendered the savings of millions worthless and sparked hyperinflation in basic foods.

In the same assembly session that promoted Jang, Pyongyang dismissed the premier of the North Korean cabinet, Kim Yong Il. Kim was reported to have made a rare apology for the currency reforms in private party meetings earlier this year.

Kim Young-soo, a North Korea scholar at Seoul's Sogang University, says the former premier and several other dismissed cabinet officials are being treated as scapegoats.

Kim says North Korea used the word "recall" in announcing the dismissal of the premier and several vice premiers. He says the word appears in the North Korean constitution and is rarely used, but in this context implies blame. The outgoing officials are being held responsible, he says, and an implicit statement is being made that Kim Jong Il himself made no error whatsoever.

North Korea was widely reported to have executed another senior party official earlier this year, in an attempt to deflect anger over the failed currency reform.