North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, center, participates in the Supreme People's… (KCNA )
Reporting from Beijing —
North Korean leader Kim Jong Il's brother-in-law was elevated Monday to the second-most powerful position in the leadership, a reshuffling of personnel intended to consolidate the ruling family's grip on the country.
The promotion of Jang Song Taek, 64, long believed to be one of the most powerful men behind the scenes in North Korea, was announced after an unexpected meeting of the Supreme People's Assembly, presided over by the ailing Kim. A longtime family confidant, 81-year-old Choe Yong Rim, was named prime minister, a largely ceremonial post.
The assembly formally named Jang as the vice chairman of the National Defense Commission, the top ruling body in North Korea. Kim is the chairman.
The reshuffling appears intended to pave the way for Kim's inexperienced and little-known youngest son, Kim Jong Un, to become the titular leader after his father's death.
"Jang will be the prince regent, the mentor or — who knows — maybe the king, since nasty things have been known to happen to crown princes," said Andrei Lankov, a North Korea scholar with Kookmin University in Seoul. He cautioned, however, that the implications of the moves might not be clear for some time. "This is not even Kremlinology — it's much worse."
Kim Jong Il, 68, who is believed to be suffering the effects of a stroke, kidney disease and possibly cancer, began less than a year ago preparing to have his youngest son succeed him. But he may have encountered some resistance. The heir apparent, who is either 27 or 28, has such a skimpy resume and low public profile that the only known photograph of him dates to about age 13, when he was reported to be a student at an international school in Switzerland.
Jang, on the other hand, has spent three decades in the Workers' Party leadership, at various times overseeing the secret police, public labor and the military. He also has been one of the chief officials trying to develop special economic zones within North Korea, along the lines of the Chinese model.
Jang is married to Kim Jong Il's younger sister, Kim Kyong Hui.
With close ties to both the ruling party and the military and with key family connections (an older brother at one point headed the army division in charge of defending Pyongyang, the capital), Jang has long been considered the most powerful figure in North Korea after Kim Jong Il. Speculation that he might in fact be a rival led to his being banished from Pyongyang in 2004, but he came bounding back 18 months later.
The Supreme People's Assembly also dumped Prime Minister Kim Yong Il, who is not related to the ruling family. He might have taken the fall for a bungled currency reform late last year, for which he had to offer a rare public apology.
Monday's session was unexpected because the Supreme People's Assembly normally convenes only once a year. The gathering led to speculation that Kim's health had taken a turn for the worse. He was photographed in early May looking frail and uncharacteristically svelte during a trip to Beijing to meet with Chinese President Hu Jintao and others in the leadership.