North Koreans voted today in elections for a new parliament which analysts say could lay the groundwork for a transition of power in the impoverished communist nation. The vote is also being closely monitored around the world for clues as to whether the state, which tested an atomic weapon in October 2006, will soften its stance in international negotiations to disarm its nuclear arsenal. Voting to the rubber-stamp parliament did not take place in 2008 when its five-year term expired amid fevered speculation over the health of reclusive leader Kim Jong-il.
The North's official Korean Central News Agency reported that 71.4 per cent of registered voters had cast their ballot by midday. Officials in Seoul and Washington say Mr Jong-il has made a good recovery from a stroke in August last year and is still in control, but his health and age have inevitably led to talk abroad about who will succeed him. He inherited power from his father, Kim Il-sung, in the communist world's only dynastic succession. But it is unclear whether he wants one of his three sons to succeed him - and if so, which one.
"Kim Jong-il will turn 72 when the next election comes, and given his ageing, it is likely that an idea about a post-Kim era will be reflected in the elections this time," Kim Yong-Hyun, a North Korea expert and professor at Dongguk University in Seoul, said. Yonhap has reported, quoting unnamed sources, that the leader has named his third and youngest son, Jong-Un, as his successor and the 25-year-old is running in the election.
The outcome of the election is not in doubt - candidates are picked by the government or ruling party, and only one stands in each district. The incoming assembly will re-elect Mr Jong-il, 67, who is standing in a military district, as chairman of the National Defence Commission. The commission, which supervises the 1.1 million-strong military, is North Korea's most powerful organ, and its new line-up will be seen as an indicator of who is moving up the echelons of power and influence.