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N Korea announces March election

North Koreans rally behind their leadership on Tuesday
North Koreans face economic crisis and political uncertainty

North Korea has announced it will be holding elections to its rubber-stamp parliament in March - the first in six years.

Only one candidate, chosen by supreme leaders, will stand for each seat, with their election probably a formality.

But some analysts suggest the election may be part of a wider shake-up of the country's leadership.

On Tuesday, South Korea said at least five North Korean cabinet ministers had been replaced in previous months.

Changes in the North Korean governing elite may be a response to the widely rumoured ill health of autocratic leader Kim Jong-il, and the lack of an obvious successor.

They also take place against the backdrop of North Korea's long-ailing economy, which recently suffered an additional blow when South Korea withheld aid which would have been worth about 5% of the $20bn (13bn) the economy generates each year.

'100% support'

In a two-line statement, the official North Korean news agency announced elections to the 12th Supreme People's Assembly would take place on 8 March.

It will be six years since the last such elections, which recorded a 99.9% voter turnout and 100% level of support for each candidate.

Kim Jong-il may try to have a shake-up in personnel and institutional systems
Prof Yang Moo-jin
University of North Korean Studies, Seoul
Such elections are usually held every five years, but last year's were postponed - possibly, analysts suggest, due to the health of Kim Jong-il, who is widely believed to have suffered a stroke in August.

The North has refused to countenance the reports of illness, and has released a stream of reports and photographs of Mr Kim on state visits, though with little proof of where or when the visits took place.

Mr Kim is now believed to be firmly back in control, but the health scare has served to underline the apparent absence of a clear successor to him.

The election could mark a "generational change" in the North's military-oriented political structure, with a post-Kim future in mind, Prof Yang Moo-jin from Seoul's University of North Korean Studies told AFP news agency.

"North Korean Supreme People's Assembly deputies are usually appointed to key posts in the party and military after the elections. Kim Jong-il may try to have a shake-up in personnel and institutional systems," he said.

Liberalisation fears

In addition to the legislative elections, North Korea has also made moves to reshuffle its cabinet, South Korea's unification ministry said on Tuesday.

Five ministers from the transport, industrial and agricultural sectors were replaced, in what may be part of a drive to reform the country's weak industrial infrastructure.

In addition, some reports suggested the finance, commerce and trade ministers had also been replaced. If true, the reports would add credence to suggestions that the North is keen to revive its stagnant economy - battered by mismanagement, natural disasters and diplomatic isolation, in part due to its prolonged stand-off with the West over its nuclear programme.

In a new year editorial, North Korea announced a "far-reaching target to open the gate to a thriving nation" in 2012, the centenary of the birth of late "Great Leader" Kim Il-sung.

But it appears fearful of the political consequences that might accompany economic liberalisation, and has taken steps to row back on moderate economic reforms instituted in 2002.



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