TOKYO -- In the clearest signal yet that North Korea is in the midst of a transition of power during its nuclear standoff with the West, its government said yesterday that Kim Jong Il, the son and heir apparent of the nation's founder, has been appointed chairman of the National Defense Committee, one of the three highest posts in the nation.
The announcement came during a session of the Supreme People's Assembly, nominally the country's highest authority.
Western analysts said the appointment strengthened Mr. Kim's authority over the North Korean military and removed most doubts over whether he will succeed his father, Kim Il Sung, as president. The elder Mr. Kim, who is surrendering his title as the chairman of the military, turns 81 next week.
"It is a very important change, and it is a move that many people thought would never happen," said a Western official in Seoul. "Kim Jong Il is now formally in control of the military."
The younger Mr. Kim, 51, is widely believed to be the man behind North Korea's announcement last month that it would pull out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. He is also believed to be in charge of the country's arms program, including its suspected nuclear weapons project and its efforts to develop a new medium-range missile thought to be capable of carrying nuclear and chemical weapons.
A U.S. Defense Department official said this week that Iran was negotiating to obtain the missile, which would be capable of reaching Japan from North Korea.
The United Nations Security Council issued a mildly worded statement of concern Thursday about North Korea's announcement that it was withdrawing from the Non-Proliferation Treaty. The statement contained no specific criticisms or suggestions of future sanctions.
U.S. officials have said they are willing to give quiet diplomacy some time to work before North Korea's withdrawal from the treaty takes effect in June, but they suggested that sanctions might follow.
Western analysts have watched the Supreme Assembly meeting in Pyongyang with considerable concern because of the increasingly threatening tone of its statements.
"Should outside forces take any kind of 'coercive measure' against our republic now, it would be a new train plunging the whole of the Korean Peninsula into the flame of war," Kang Song San, a senior government official, was quoted as telling the Supreme Assembly. "Then our fellow countrymen would suffer great national disasters of thermonuclear war on top of the tragedy of division."