The North Korean parliament has reelected supreme leader Kim Jong Il as chairman of the National Defense Commission, thereby confirming his control on the levers of power in the reclusive communist state.
The move comes as Kim is seeking to reap the political and diplomatic gains from the 3,200-kilometer flight of one of its rockets, in what is believed to be a disguised missile test. And, capping a successful week for Kim, it appears that the international community is unable to formulate a formal response to that action.
Kim Jong Il was present at the parliamentary session. It was his first appearance at a major state event since he was suspected of suffering a stroke last year.
The official media in the North used the language of old-style communism to welcome Kim's reelection by the rubber-stamp parliament, referring to it as a demonstration of the "unshakable faith" of the army and people to "defend and glorify" the Korean system.
That's despite the fact that neither the parliamentarians nor the "popular masses" had any say in the matter.
Analysts see the rocket launch on April 6 and Kim’s reelection in parliament as closely linked. "North Korea wanted to use a successful launch to add emphasis to what is happening in Pyongyang right now," says Kim Tae-woo of the Seoul-based Korea Institute for Defense Analysis. “Personally I think the whole thing Pyongyang is doing is to consolidate the power base of Chairman Kim Jong Il. Kim was sick last year, but he's recovering now, and he probably feels very strongly the need to reconfirm his control of the power base."
For domestic consumption, the North's media has sought to boost the propaganda value of the rocket mission. It is claiming that the rocket successfully put a communications satellite into orbit. But the U.S. military says it sees no trace of a new satellite in space.
Nonetheless, analyst Kim Tae-woo says the mission provided an opportunity for Kim to strengthen national pride and unity at home, and also to demonstrate strength to the outside world.
"Technically speaking, North Korea revealed its limitations in space technology,” he says. “But politically and militarily speaking it managed to achieve a considerable amount. North Korea demonstrated a power projection capability approaching the level of intercontinental ballistic missiles."
Fear Of A Strike
Kim Tae-woo says the United States now has to grapple with the prospect that North Korea might have the capability to strike at U.S. territory. This gives Pyongyang extra leverage over Washington at the presently-stalled six party talks on dismantling North Korea’s nuclear program, and the negotiations now are expected to be tougher.
The international community has been unable to formulate a clear response in the UN Security Council to North Korea’s recent missile launch.
The United States, Japan, and South Korea say the launch violated Security Council resolutions banning the firing of ballistic missiles by Pyongyang, and seek a legally binding UN resolution expanding sanctions on North Korea and imposing an arms embargo. The bans were imposed after North Korea conducted a nuclear test and other missile exercises in 2006.
But veto-holding members Russia and China are holding back, and have indicated they would veto any strong resolution against Pyongyang over the missile launch.
"We think any threats of sanctions would be counterproductive,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said at a news conference in Moscow on April 8. “We need to concentrate on the implementation of existing Security Council decisions."
China, North Korea's closest ally, is similarly reluctant. Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said any response from the Security Council should be "prudent."