SEOUL - North Korea will hold elections to its rubber-stamp parliament in March, opening a rare window on possible power shifts in Pyongyang following the recent execution of leader Kim Jong-Un's uncle.
The presidium of the Supreme People's Assembly (SPA) decided the election - held every five years - would take place on March 9, the North's official KCNA news agency said Wednesday.
The last parliamentary vote - a highly staged process with only one approved candidate standing for each of the 687 districts - was held in 2009 under the leadership of Kim's father, Kim Jong-Il.
Kim succeeded his father in December 2011, and the candidate list for the March election will be closely watched for indications that he is seeking to strengthen his grip on power.
Kim has already overseen sweeping changes within the North's ruling elite - the most dramatic example being the purging and execution of his powerful uncle and political mentor Jang Song-Thaek last month on charges of treason and corruption.
In his New Year message last week, Kim said the country had been strengthened by the removal of "factionalist scum".
Jang, like many top North Korean officials, was a member of the SPA, and the March vote will provide an opportunity to see if any senior figures are removed from the candidates' list.
"It will also be interesting to see who the new faces are, as some of them may be tagged for a key role under Kim Jong-Un," said Kim Yeon-Chul, a professor at Inje University's Unification Department.
Cheong Seong-Chang of the Sejong Institute think-tank in Seoul said the election could herald a "generational change" under Kim Jong-Un.
The young leader celebrated his birthday Wednesday and is believed to be 30 or 31 years old.
Kim was expected to mark the day watching an exhibition basketball match in Pyongyang organised by the eccentric ex-NBA star Dennis Rodman.
The former Chicago Bulls player has been accused in the US of pandering to North Korea, which last April sentenced American missionary Kenneth Bae to 15 years hard labour on charges of plotting to overthrow the regime.
In an interview with CNN on Tuesday, a furious Rodman hit back at the criticism of the exhibition game matching a group of ex-NBA players against a North Korean team.
"I don't give a rat's ass what the hell you think," Rodman told the
interviewer in an angry tirade broadcast from the North Korean capital. The four-time All Star voiced frustration at the fact that Bae's case and Pyongyang's human rights record in general had overshadowed the birthday event.
The Swiss-educated Kim Jong-Un is reported to be a keen basketball fan, with a special liking for the Chicago Bulls.
Rodman says he views Kim as a close friend after the two struck up an unlikely relationship when the player made his first trip to North Korea nearly a year ago.
Kim might well be among the candidates in the March election, if he chooses to follow his father's example of standing for parliament.
The rubber-stamp assembly usually sits twice a year for a day or two to pass government budgets and approve personnel changes.
The last session in April 2013 adopted a special ordinance formalising the country's position as a nuclear weapons state - a status that both South Korea and the United States have vowed not to recognise.
"We will not accept North Korea as a nuclear state," US Secretary of State John Kerry reiterated Tuesday at a joint press conference in Washington with his South Korean counterpart Yun Byung-Se.
The very public purging of Jang amounted to a rare admission of dissent within North Korea and triggered concerns that the regime might try to promote unity by targeting the South.
Kerry said an additional 800 US troops would be deployed to South Korea for a nine-month tour from February.
"We will continue to modernize our capabilities so that we are prepared to face any threat," he told reporters.
The United States already has 28,500 troops in the South.
Both countries have rejected overtures from the North about resuming six-party talks on its nuclear programme, insisting that Pyongyang must demonstrate some commitment to denuclearisation.
Following the execution of Jang Song-Thaek, rumours have swirled around the fate of his wife and Kim Jong-Un's aunt, Kim Kyong-Hui - a major political operator in her own right.
South Korea's Yonhap news agency on Wednesday cited a senior government official as saying she was in a "critical condition" as the result of a heart condition exacerbated by alcoholism.
Kim visited Russia between September and October last year for medical treatment, the official said, echoing a recent report by the dissident news website Daily NK.
A leading South Korean newspaper reported Monday that Kim may have already died - either of a heart attack or by suicide.
She has not been seen in public since September.