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North Korean Lawmakers Gather Amid Ship Sinking, Kim Succession

North Korea’s Supreme People’s Assembly is convening a rare meeting today amid tension caused by the sinking of a South Korean warship and speculation about who will succeed leader Kim Jong Il.

It is the first time the totalitarian state has held two parliamentary meetings during the same session since Kim took power in 1998, according to the South’s Unification Ministry. The meeting may be used to reaffirm the regime’s rejection of accusations it was behind the March 26 sinking of the Cheonan, or to announce a personnel reshuffle on the National Defense Commission or the cabinet, the ministry said.

“It would more or less be a symbolic gesture for North Korea to claim its innocence in the Cheonan attack both domestically and globally,” said Kim Yong Hyun, professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University in Seoul.

South Korea last week asked the United Nations Security Council to examine and respond to an international panel’s finding that the North torpedoed its ship, killing 46 sailors. North Korea yesterday branded the request an “unpardonable grave provocation.”

The U.S. and Japan have voiced support for the South, while Russia sent its own team of experts to assess the information. China, North Korea’s ally of 60 years, has so far refused to criticize Kim’s regime, saying that it was still considering the evidence from both sides. China and Russia have the power to veto any censure or sanctions proposed at the Security Council.

Kim’s Health Speculation

Any reshuffling of the North Korean leadership may also provide analysts with signal about Kim’s preparations to hand over power. Speculation over the 68-year-old leader’s condition has increased since he reportedly suffered a stroke in 2008, and he was shown limping in television footage during a visit last month to China.

Eldest son Kim Jong Nam said his father is in good health, JoongAng Sunday reported yesterday, citing an interview with him in Macau. The Korean-language newspaper is the Sunday edition of the daily JoongAng Ilbo newspaper.

Kim Jong Un, the leader’s youngest son, is being widely tipped as his most likely successor, according to South Korean officials. Jong Un, known to be in his 20s, was appointed as head of the country’s secret police last year, according to Dong-A Ilbo newspaper in Seoul.

The parliamentary session may name key posts to replace aging officials, which may be part of a succession process, Dongguk University’s Kim said.

North Korea said on May 14 it relieved Kim Il Chol from his posts as a member of the National Defense Commission and first vice-minister of the People’s Armed Forces because of old age.

The assembly was called on May 18, according to the official Korea Central News Agency. The first meeting was held on April 9. While there were two assembly meetings in 2003, they were held under different sessions, the Unification Ministry said on its website.

Today’s session may also have been convened to pass laws related to foreign investment after Kim’s May 3-7 trip to China, the ministry said.

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