In a rare extra parliamentary session on Monday, North Korea's Supreme People's Assembly promoted leader Kim Jong-il's brother-in-law Jang Song-taek to vice chairman of the National Defense Commission, the top policy-making body. Jang was promoted again only a year and two months after he joined the NDC.
The SPA, North Korea's rubber-stamp parliament, has held only one session each year, but this year it held a rare second session just two months after the first in April. North Korea's state media reported Kim Jong-il attended the session and proposed Jang's appointment. Kim did not attend the April session.
Jang is the husband of Kim Jong-il's sister Kim Kyong-hui and the uncle of Kim's son and heir apparent Jong-un. Analysts say his appointment to the vice chairmanship of the NDC is part of steps to prepare for the transfer of power to Jong-un, who is only 27 years old. Kim appears to have entrusted his sister and her husband with his son's guardianship.
But analysts are divided whether Jang is therefore now the de facto No. 2 leader or whether he shares power with top military officials O Kuk-ryol and Kim Yong-chun. Nevertheless, the appointments demonstrate the irregular nature of the way power is allotted in the reclusive country. The international press referred to Jang's appointment as the "rise of the regent."
It also reflects the uncertainties facing the North Korean regime if it requires the appointment of a regent with blood ties to the ruling dynasty. The Kim Jong-il regime is capable of doing anything to ensure its iron grip on power, which is why the New York Times speculates North Korea's sinking of the South Korean Navy corvette Cheonan was aimed at "solidifying the dynastic transfer of power."
It is difficult to forecast the lifespan of North Korea's leadership. Sometimes the regime appears near collapse but manages to survive catastrophic situations such as the mass starvations during the drought in the 1990s. Sometimes the regime appears ready to open up to the rest of the world but ends up closing the doors more tightly. There is no telling what emergencies will develop if unforeseen variables arise in the process of handing over control to Kim Jong-un.
South Korea is willy-nilly affected by the North with its capricious tactics. In dealing with such an unpredictable regime, it is wise to come up with a set of responses to any or any kind of provocation rather than just try to guess the next move. The government must establish an accurate picture of what is going on inside North Korea's ruling clique.