North Korea’s Kim Jong Il Rearranges Top Posts

BY Larisa Epatko  June 8, 2010 at 2:20 PM EST

The brother-in-law of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il was promoted to a top leadership role in the country, in a move viewed by some analysts as clearing the way for the succession of Kim’s third son.

On Monday, the North Korean Parliament named Jang Song Thaek to vice chairman of the National Defense Commission, the country’s highest military body. The move puts him in the country’s No. 2 role.

Jang is considered one of the main backers of the succession of Kim’s youngest son, Kim Jong Un, as the nation’s leader. Kim suffered a stroke in 2008.

“Jang has always been playing a crucial role as the closest man to the leader,” said Kim Young-hyun, professor of North Korean Studies at Dongkuk University, reported ABC News. “It’s too early to tell, but he’s probably meant to play the middleman’s role in transferring power. But it may also mean that the pinnacle of power has consolidated around Jang for good.”

Not much is known about Kim’s youngest son, who is thought to be 27, and no photos have been taken of him as an adult outside the country. However, South Korea’s news agency Yonhap on Tuesday published photos it said came from his teenage years at a school in Switzerland.

Another shift in governmental positions came when Parliament member Choe Yong Rim replaced Kim Yong Il as prime minister, along with the renaming of several vice premiers, the country’s official Korean Central News Agency reported.

The changes weren’t explained, but come amid worsening economic problems and mounting tensions over the sinking of a South Korean navy ship in March, which international investigators said was caused by a North Korean torpedo, though the North denies the attack.

Brian Myers of South Korea’s Dongseo University in South Korea told NPR’s “Morning Edition” that Cabinet shakeups are not unusual after large domestic failures.

“I think what is uppermost on the minds of the leaders in Pyongyang is probably the currency reform, which was instituted last November and which was a horrible failure,” he said. “So I think that the shakeup, in particular the replacement of the premier, was aimed at palliating public opinion and showing the people that consequences were being derived from this failure.”

North Korea’s attempted currency reform last year set off inflation, food market closings and unusual public discontent, according to the Financial Times.