SEOUL, South Korea — North Korean legislators gathered in Pyongyang on Thursday amid speculation that leader Kim Jong Il may appoint his son to a post that would make him the nation's second most powerful man.
As the Supreme People's Assembly convenes a spring session, attention is focused on whether Kim Jong Un will be elected to the National Defense Commission — a move that would further solidify the young man's standing as North Korea's next leader.
Delegates from around the country began arriving earlier in the week for the session, laying bouquets Wednesday at a statue of Kim Jong Il's mother, Kim Jong Suk, according to North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency.
The parliamentary meeting is North Korea's first major national meeting since Kim Jong Un made his political debut in September by winning a key leadership post in the ruling Workers' Party. Since then, he has appeared regularly at Kim Jong Il's side, his father's clear choice as heir apparent.
Election Thursday to the National Defense Commission would be the next step in the path to succession, a process that many believe will be completed in the next year.
April 2012 marks the centenary of the birth of President Kim Il Sung, the former guerrilla fighter who founded North Korea and passed the mantle of leadership to son Kim Jong Il. Pyongyang has promoted 2012 as a significant milestone in the country's history.
However, some question whether the son will ascend that quickly to a major National Defense Commission post only six months after being made a four-star general and assuming senior Workers' Party posts when Kim Jong Il appears to remain in control.
"For Kim Jong Il, handing over a considerable amount of power to his son could mean a weakening of his own power base," said Kim Yong-hyun, a professor of North Korean studies at Seoul's Dongguk University.
Kim Jong Il, 69, rules the nation of 24 million as the chairman of the National Defense Commission, but the commission's No. 2 post, first vice chairman, has been vacant since his longtime confidant Jo Myong Rok died in November. Jo, a vice marshal of the Korean People's Army and top party official, had held the post for some 12 years.
The National Defense Commission is authorized to formulate key state and military policies, and being named first vice chairman of the NDC would allow Kim Jong Un to start making his own inspection trips to army units, factories and farms.
"There is a high possibility that Kim Jong Un would become the commission's 1st vice chairman and assume the No. 2 spot in the government as well as in the Workers' Party," said Cheong Seong-chang, a senior fellow at the private Sejong Institute in South Korea who has watched the succession issue closely for years.
North Korea's parliament usually meets once a year to approve rubber stamp bills vetted by the Workers' Party. Its infrequent sessions are closely watched for clues to changes in the country's power structure.
Kim Jong Il used a 2009 legislative meeting to make a triumphant return to the public eye after months out of sights following rumors he had suffered a stroke. Last year, he reshuffled top officials.
Legislators may also approve measures aimed at drawing foreign investment and revitalizing North Korea's economy, analysts said.
In the months ahead, North Korea will also likely focus on winning economic assistance and improving ties with South Korea and the United States to help ensure a smooth power transfer, Kim said.
The World Food Program said last month after conducting an extensive survey that more than 6 million North Koreans need outside food aid due to hardships including heavy flooding and a harsh winter.
The shortage comes as North Korea's leadership is pledging to build a "powerful, prosperous nation" by 2012, and South Korean officials say Pyongyang is asking foreign nations for food handouts to save up for next year.
Persistent tensions over its nuclear program and military saber-rattling have also cut into supply routes.
South Korea links aid resumption to progress in inter-Korean ties, saying improved relations largely depend on Pyongyang taking responsibility for two attacks last year that killed 50 South Koreans: the deadly sinking of a warship and an artillery bombardment of an island in disputed front-line waters.
North Korea denies attacking the South Korean warship and has said Seoul prompted the artillery attack by firing into the waters first.