North Korea announced a reshuffle of senior officials yesterday just days ahead of a key communist party meeting expected to pave the way for a power transfer from North Korean leader Kim Jong-il to his son.
Kang Sok-ju, North Korea’s first vice minister of foreign affairs, has been appointed to the position of vice premier of the Cabinet, the Korea Central News Agency said.
Kim Kye-gwan, Pyongyang’s chief negotiator in six-nation nuclear disarmament talks, was named to fill Kang’s slot at the foreign ministry while Ri Yong-ho, Kim’s deputy in the nuclear talks, was named a vice foreign minister. The announcement came as North Korea prepares for its biggest political meeting for decades next week, expected to pave the way for a transfer of power to Kim Jong-il’s youngest son, Jong-un.
The conference of the ruling communist party “for electing its supreme leadership body will take place in Pyongyang on Sept. 28,” KCNA said on Tuesday, describing it as an “historic” meeting.
The event had been scheduled for early this month, but it was postponed without any explanation from the secretive state.
It will be the first major gathering of the Workers’ Party of Korea since a congress in 1980 confirmed Kim as successor to his own father and founding president Kim Il-sung, who died in 1994.
The conference is expected to put a new leadership line-up in place, spell out possible policy shifts and give top party posts to Jong-un’s supporters, such as the senior Kim’s powerful brother-in-law Jang Song-thaek. Kim Jong-il, 68, suffered a stroke in August 2008 and has visibly aged since then. Some reports say he also has kidney problems that require dialysis.
Kang, known to be long overseeing Pyongyang’s nuclear negotiations and diplomatic policies on the US, accompanied Kim Jong-il during his visit to China last month, which analysts said was aimed at getting Beijing’s support for the power handover to Jong-un.
The reshuffle signals Pyongyang’s determination to improve overseas ties and revive the long-stalled nuclear disarmament talks ahead of the power transfer, amid growing pressure from Beijing, said Chung Seong-chang, analyst at the Sejong Institute.
“By promoting Kang and Kim Kye-gwan, the North is highlighting that its diplomacy from now on will put more emphasis on boosting ties with Washington and future nuclear negotiations,” Chung said.
The newly-promoted Kim Kye-gwan, the North’s pointman on nuclear negotiation since 2007, will be able to engage in the future six-party negotiations “more efficiently and with more decision power,” he said.
The six-party nuclear forum, also involving South Korea, China, the US, Japan and Russia, has been in hiatus since the last meeting in December 2008, before the North stormed out in April last year and conducted its second nuclear test a month later.
However, China, the impoverished North’s sole ally and economic lifeline as its biggest trade partner, has intensified pressure on Pyongyang to overhaul its economy and ease tensions on the peninsula.
“The promotion is indicating that Pyongyang is thinking very thoroughly about how to lay a firm groundwork for as smooth a power transition as possible, by seeking more stable diplomacy and also making China feel comfortable,” Chung said.
Yang Moo-Jin, of Seoul’s University of North Korean Studies, also said Kang was likely to spearhead the North’s overall diplomatic strategies and seek more dialogue with Washington.
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