SEOUL/PYONGYANG – North Korea announced Wednesday elections to its rubber-stamp parliament in March, the first under leader Kim Jong Un as he seeks to cement his grip on power after purging his uncle.
The presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA) decided the election — held every five years — would take place on March 9, the North’s official KCNA news agency said.
It comes at a time of heightened speculation over the stability of Kim’s regime and growing concern over the North’s nuclear weapons program.
The last parliamentary vote — a highly staged process with only one approved candidate standing for each of the 687 districts — was held in 2009 under the leadership of Kim’s father, Kim Jong Il.
Kim succeeded his father in December 2011, and the March election will be closely watched for any further revelations on the changing power structure in Pyongyang.
Kim has already overseen sweeping changes within the North’s ruling elite — the most dramatic example being the execution last month of Jang Song Thaek, his powerful uncle and political mentor, on charges of treason and corruption.
In his New Year’s message last week, Kim said the country had been strengthened by the removal of “factionalist scum.”
Jang, like many top North Korean officials, was a member of the SPA, and the March vote will provide a rare opportunity to see if any senior figures in the secretive nation are removed from the candidates’ list.
“It will also be interesting to see who the new faces are, as some of them may be tagged for a key role under Kim Jong Un,” said Kim Yeon-chul, a professor at Inje University’s Unification Department.
Cheong Seong-chang, of the Sejong Institute think tank in Seoul, said the election could herald a “generational change” under Kim Jong Un.
The announcement of the vote coincided with the young leader’s birthday Wednesday. His precise age is a matter of some speculation due to confusion about the year of his birth, with various reports that it was 1982, 1983 or 1984.
Kim might well be among the parliamentary candidates if he chooses to follow his father’s example of standing in the election.
The rubber-stamp body usually sits twice a year for a day or two to pass government budgets and approve personnel changes.
The last session in April 2013 adopted a special ordinance formalizing the country’s position as a nuclear weapons state — a status that both South Korea and the United States have vowed not to recognize.
“We will not accept North Korea as a nuclear state,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry reiterated Tuesday at a joint news conference in Washington with his South Korean counterpart, Yun Byung-se.
The very public purging of Jang amounted to a rare admission of dissent within North Korea and triggered concerns that the regime might try to promote unity by targeting the South.
Both countries have rejected overtures from the North about resuming six-party talks on its nuclear program, insisting that Pyongyang must demonstrate some commitment to denuclearization.
In the meantime, the only tangible U.S. contact with the North is in the unlikely form of ex-NBA star Dennis Rodman, who is in Pyongyang with several other former players for a basketball game he had arranged to mark Kim’s birthday.
Rodman has been accused at home of pandering to North Korea, which last April sentenced American missionary Kenneth Bae to 15 years of hard labor on charges of plotting to overthrow the regime.
Former NBA star Charles D. Smith, who had traveled to Pyongyang with Rodman, said the game had been dwarfed by politics and tainted by Rodman’s own comments. Many of the players on Tuesday privately expressed second thoughts about going ahead because of an outpouring of criticism back home in the United States.
“What we are doing is positive, but it is getting dwarfed by the other circumstances around it,” Smith said. “Apparently our message is not being conveyed properly due to the circumstances that are much bigger than us, and I think that has to do with politics and government.
In an interview with CNN on Tuesday, a furious Rodman hit back at the criticism of his exhibition game.
“I don’t give a rat’s ass what the hell you think,” Rodman told the interviewer in an angry tirade broadcast from the North Korean capital.
The four-time All Star voiced frustration at the fact that Bae’s case and Pyongyang’s human rights record in general had overshadowed the birthday event.
Added Smith: “The way some of the statements and things that Dennis has said has tainted our efforts. Dennis is a great guy, but how he articulates what goes on — he gets emotional and he says things that he’ll apologize for later.”