North Korea Leader Returns to Public After Stroke

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) - A visibly grayer and thinner Kim Jong
Il proved he remains in charge of communist North Korea, presiding
over parliament in a triumphant return to center stage after months
out of the public eye following a reported stroke.

Limping slightly, Kim arrived Thursday at the grand hall housing
the 687-seat Supreme People's Assembly to a standing ovation and
praise for a weekend rocket launch heralded as "historic" at home
though assailed in some nations as provocative.

A master at building drama, Kim fed the world's curiosity for
months about his health after reports said he had a stroke and
underwent brain surgery in August - though North Korea has denied
that he was ever ill.

Kim solemnly acknowledged his reappointment as chairman of the
powerful National Defense Commission, which under North Korea's
constitution makes him the nation's top leader while his father,
late North Korea founder Kim Il Sung, remains "eternal
president."

"Having comrade Kim Jong Il at the highest post of our country
again is a great honor and happiness for our military and people
and a great happy event for all Korean people," a newscaster said
on state TV.

State media made no mention of Kim from August until October,
and no video images of him were released until this week.

Thursday's appearance was his first at a major public event,
with taped video footage broadcast the same day, finally putting to
rest any question about whether he has recuperated from the
reported stroke that sparked fears of a succession crisis in the
nuclear-armed nation.

Kim looked healthy, if older, on Thursday, but the weight loss
appeared to have been sudden, leaving the skin on his once-pudgy
face hanging loosely.

Despite the limp, it was clear "Kim Jong Il has no problem
ruling the country," said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at Seoul's
University of North Korean Studies.

Outside observers were watching closely for signs he may be
laying the groundwork for a successor following the health scare.

Kim has ruled the impoverished nation of 24 million with
absolute authority since his father's death in 1994, allowing no
dissent or opposition. Both Kims thrived on an intense cult of
personality, with their portraits hanging in nearly every room.

However, none of Kim's three sons was elected to parliament in
March, and they are not believed ready to assume the leadership
mantle.

In a significant appointment Thursday, Kim's brother-in-law,
Jang Song Thaek, a senior Workers' Party member, was named to the
powerful defense commission.

Kim appears to be boosting Jang's authority, perhaps to pave the
way for him to assume more power, said Cheong Seong-chang, a North
Korea expert at South Korea's Sejong Institute.

Jang, who is married to Kim's sister, is believed to back Kim's
youngest son, 26-year-old Jong Un, as his father's successor.

In another possible succession-related move, the parliament
approved a motion to amend the constitution. No details were
available, but in the 1990s, a similar amendment paved the way for
Kim to assume leadership from his father.

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, the country's founder.

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.

Japan renewed sanctions imposed on North Korea since its 2006
missile test for another year Friday to punish the communist
country. It also strengthened economic sanctions, banning all
exports and lowering the cap on remittances that must be reported
to Tokyo, a Foreign Ministry official said on condition of
anonymity, citing department policy.

Washington, calling the launch a bold violation of U.N. Security
Council resolutions barring North Korea from ballistic
missile-related activity, is leading the push for council
condemnation.

However, council debate remains stalled, with North Korea's
closest ally, China, and Russia maintaining calls for restraint.

"We're still engaged in consultations to try to come up with a
strong and effective response," State Department spokesman Robert
Wood told reporters on Thursday. But he said it won't be easy as
"there are some differences of opinion on ... how we deal with
this question."

Japan and the U.S. would prefer a full-blown Security Council
resolution, but Washington worries it could take too long.

China and Russia have all but ruled out allowing the council to
pass anything more than a press statement that carries no legal
weight.


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