Baffling North Korea may keep a dead man as leader

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AT THE END of a baffling week in one of the world's most mysterious countries, the North Korean parliament re-elected its leader, Kim Jong Il, yesterday as the head of the country's armed forces.

It had been widely predicted that Mr Kim would take over the presidency of the Stalinist state, which has been vacant since the death in 1994 of his father, the country's founding president, Kim Il Sung. But in an "important announcement", North Korean radio reported only his election as chairman of the National Defence Commission.

In contrast to previous occasions, the election of the president did not appear on the agenda of the Supreme People's Assembly, which is meeting in the capital, Pyongyang, for the first time in more than four years. Instead, the Assembly was due to discuss a change to the national constitution, which has provoked a new line of thinking among North Korea-watchers: that the country may abolish the post of president as a gesture of respect for the late Kim Il Sung, who would remain "eternal president".

The unexpected development appears to make little difference to his son's grip on power which - so far as foreign analysts are able to make out - is firm, despite a series of disasters which have befallen the country during the past nine years. Since the end of communism in Russia and the shift to a more liberal economy in China, North Korea has lost once guaranteed markets for its export goods and entered a chronic economic slump.

Inefficient agriculture, exacerbated by a string of floods, droughts and tidal waves, have laid waste to the country's rice harvests and an unknown number of people - as many as three million by some estimates - have died of starvation. But, so far as one can tell, from the very limited information supplied by spy satellites and the accounts of those few foreigners allowed to visit or live in North Korea, the rigidly authoritarian regime faces no serious challenges to its power.

Last Monday, the country launched what was taken to be a ballistic missile in an apparent test firing over the Japanese mainland and into the Pacific Ocean. On Friday, however, the Korean Central News Agency insisted that it was actually a satellite, a claim which was supported by officials in Russia, according to the Itar-Tass news agency.

"The launch of an artificial earth satellite of that size into orbit was likely to have been done through a powerful rocket with similar tactical and technical characteristics as an intercontinental ballistic missile," the news agency said. There were no signs, however, that a second launch was about to be carried out, as another Russian report had suggested last week.

The South Korean president, Kim Dae Jung, said yesterday that the rocket incident "seems aimed at soothing their hardship ... by raising the authority of Kim Jong Il, trying to receive more reward from the United States or Japan, lowering the morale of South Korean people and covering up the fact that their conventional weaponry is outdated."

Another firing is possible on Wednesday, the 50th anniversary of the foundation of North Korea. "Whether it's a satellite or a missile, it shows North Korea has acquired the ability to deliver a missile," said Lee Ho Jin, a spokesman for the South Korean foreign ministry. "This is a serious security threat to the region."

During talks last week in New York, North Korea told American officials that it would desist from trading in ballistic missiles only if it was given millions of dollars in compensation.