North Korean strongman Kim Jong Il is officially back on center stage following a reported stroke, but has promoted a trusted in-law to the spotlight in the clearest sign yet he is making preparations for an eventual successor, analysts said Friday.
Though looking thinner and grayer, and limping slightly, Kim's appearance at the closely watched first session of the North's new parliament Thursday was more than enough to lay to rest any lingering doubts about his health, and prove he is in charge.
Kim appointed his brother-in-law Jang Song Thaek to the all-powerful National Defense Commission, providing analysts with clues about what the future may hold for North Korea after Kim either dies or becomes incapacitated.
The appointment shows Kim is trying to prepare for his eventual departure and pave the way to hand power to one of his sons, analysts said, just as he himself inherited the mantle from his late father, North Korea's founder Kim Il Sung.
"In a system like North Korea, there is nobody else to trust but one's own flesh and blood," said Koh Yu-hwan, a professor at Seoul's Dongguk University. "Jang is expected to play a decisive role in strengthening Kim's rule and as a guardian of Kim's successor."
Jang, 63, is married to Kim's younger sister. He has been considered the person most likely to lead a collective leadership that would probably emerge if Kim leaves the scene, as no single person is yet believed poised to take over.
Kim has three known sons with two different mothers, and Jang is believed to back Kim's youngest son, 26-year-old Jong Un, as successor.
A technocrat trained in the former Soviet Union, Jang was a rising star in North Korean politics until he was summarily demoted in early 2004 in what analysts believe was a warning from Kim against gathering too much influence. But Kim rehabilitated Jang in 2006 and he has since held posts in the ruling Workers' Party.
In another possible succession related move, the Supreme People's Assembly approved a motion to amend North Korea's constitution. No details were available, but in the 1990s, a similar amendment paved the way for Kim to assume leadership from his father.
Choi Jin-wook, a North Korea expert at the government-funded Korea Institute for National Unification, said Jang's appointment and the constitutional revision must be "aimed at laying the groundwork for a successor as well as stabilizing his regime."
The Supreme People's Assembly re-elected Kim to his post as chairman of the National Defense Commission, the North's most powerful post, quelling months of speculation over whether the 67-year-old leader was healthy enough to rule the communist country.
The session marked the first state event Kim has attended in months. Concerns about his health — and grip on power — emerged after he missed a September ceremony marking the 60th anniversary of the North's founding. South Korean and U.S. officials later said a stroke had felled him in August.
The personality cult surrounding Kim appeared as strong as ever. He appeared calmly in charge, showing no emotion as hundreds of members of the rubber stamp legislature clapped and cheered the announcement of his unanimous re-election.
In Pyongyang on Friday, tens of thousands of North Koreans rallied to celebrate Kim's re-election and pledged their loyalty. A red-and-white banner at the center of the city's main Kim Il Sung Square read, "Let's safeguard the revolutionary leadership headed by comrade Kim Jong Il with our lives," APTN footage showed.
Kim's return to the spotlight was buoyed by what North Korea claims was the launch of a satellite into outer space. Pyongyang claims it successfully put a communications satellite into orbit Sunday and it is transmitting data and playing patriotic odes to Kim and his father.
U.S. and South Korean military officials say nothing made it into orbit and accuse Pyongyang of using the launch to test its long-range missile technology.
The launch has caused an international outcry, with the U.S., Japan and South Korea pushing for U.N. Security Council censure of Pyongyang. They say the launch violates previous U.N. resolutions prohibiting North Korea from using ballistic missile technology. North Korea counters the launch was allowed under a U.N. space treaty.
So far, the council has been unable to come up with a common response as China and Russia, both veto-wielding permanent members, have all but ruled out allowing the passage of anything more than a press statement that carries no legal weight. Differences of opinion between Japan and the U.S. have also emerged.
Chinese President Hu Jintao congratulated the North's leader on his re-election, saying in a message that Beijing is ready to work with Pyongyang to "further boost the good-neighborly, friendly and cooperative ties," the official Xinhua News Agency said.
Nevertheless, Japan moved Friday to extend and strengthen its own economic sanctions against North Korea for another year, lowering the cap on remittances that must be reported and reducing the amount of money visitors can carry into the North.
In Japan, U.S. Sen. John McCain said Friday North Korea's rocket launch demonstrates the need for investment in missile defense systems. "I believe there is no more compelling argument for missile defense capability than what just happened with the North Korean launch," McCain told reporters at a news conference in Tokyo.