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Kim Jong Il Enhances Relative's Role

North Korean leader Kim Jong Il has appointed his brother-in-law to an influential defense position. That has fueled discussion about what might happen to North Korea's government if the aging leader's health should fail.

Jang Song Taek saw his share price rise dramatically this week in North Korea's political market. He is North Korean leader Kim Jong Il's 63-year-old brother-in-law.

Kim Jong Il appointed Jang to North Korea's National Defense Commission. In North Korea's militarized and authoritarian society, Mr. Kim derives much of his status as the government's unquestioned leader from his status as chairman of that commission.

Mr. Kim made the appointment shortly after video cameras captured his image in his first public appearance in months, as he presided over the opening of a new parliamentary session Thursday. The 67-year-old leader is widely believed to have suffered a stroke in the middle of last year. Mr. Kim's drawn and feeble image on camera was a notable departure from his pudgy appearance in previous years.

Kim Jong Il was publicly groomed for power over several decades by his father, Kim Il Sung, the country's first leader. Despite advancing years and questionable health, the younger Kim has never publicly named a successor.

Lee Ki-dong, with South Korea's National Security and Strategy Institute, says Jang Song Taek is unlikely to take Kim Jong Il's place directly - but does have a role to play. He says Jang's likely role is to support a succession process, rather than to lead the country himself.

Cheong Seong-chang is a researcher with the Sejong Institute in Seoul. He says the appointment lays the groundwork for a possible transition of power in the future to one of Kim Jong Il's own sons. He says Jang Song Taek is very close to all of the North Korean leader's three sons, and can mentor them. He can also act as a guardian to the youngest son, he says, and help groom him if he is chosen as a successor.

If Kim Jong Il were to die suddenly, experts say Jang does have the credentials to play a bridging role in the North's leadership.

Kim Yong-hyun is a North Korea scholar at Seoul's Dongkuk University. Kim says Jang is a trusted consultant to Kim Jong Il with an impeccable political record. Besides being able to shepherd the next generation of Kims into politics, he says Jang can lead a "collective leadership system" in a post-Kim North Korea.

Analysts say such a system would combine elements of the North's political party elite with the top brass of the military. Serious questions remain about whether such a system would be coherent in the absence of a centralizing figure like Kim Jong Il. It is equally unsure whether Mr. Kim's sons have the charisma or credentials to sustain the personality cult established by their grandfather, Kim Il Sung - whom North Koreans worship as a near god.