SEOUL: North Korea announced Wednesday elections to its rubber-stamp parliament in March, the first under leader Kim Jong-Un as he seeks to cement his grip on power after purging his 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.
It comes at a time of heightened speculation over the stability of Kim's regime and growing concern over the North's nuclear weapons programme.
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 March election will be closely watched for any further revelations on the changing power structure in Pyongyang.
He has already overseen sweeping changes within the North's ruling elite -- the most dramatic example being the 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 announcement of the vote coincided with the young leader's birthday on Wednesday. His precise age is a matter of some speculation due to confusion about the year of his birth, with various reports that it was 1982, 1983 or 1984.
Kim might well be among the parliamentary candidates if he chooses to follow his father's example of standing in the election.
The rubber-stamp parliament 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.
In the meantime, the only tangible US contact with the North is in the unlikely form of ex-NBA star Dennis Rodman who is in Pyongyang with several other former players for a basketball match he arranged to mark Kim's birthday.
Rodman has been accused at home 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 his exhibition game.
"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.
Kim Jong-Un is reported to be a keen basketball fan and especially of the Chicago Bulls, for whom Rodman played a key role in winning three NBA titles alongside Michael Jordan in the 1990s.
The two men struck up what Rodman has described as a close friendship since the player made his first trip to North Korea nearly a year ago.