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Kim proves he remains in charge of North Korea

SEOUL, South Korea – 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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