Who's Running North Korea?

Real political power may be in the hands of a select few as Kim Jong Un looks to fill the large shoes left behind by his father.

A North Korean TV footage showing Kim Jong-Il's body lying in a glass coffin in Pyongyang, Dec. 20, 2011.

As North Korean leader Kim Jong Il was shown on official television Tuesday lying in state and visited by his young successor son, the spotlight is turning to the select few who will mentor the junior Kim in running the nuclear-armed nation.

The powers behind the throne are Kim Jong Il's younger sister Kim Kyong Hui and her husband Jang Song Thaek, a 65-year-old Soviet-trained technocrat who has been tutoring the young Kim since his father suffered a stroke in 2008, analysts said.

Both catapulted to the cream of North Korea's political and military crop when Kim Jong Il launched his succession campaign two years ago.

The wife of the late "Dear Leader," Kim Young Sook, who is the daughter of a high-ranking military official, is also being viewed to be within the inner circle close to the powerful military in control of the nuclear weapons, North Korea's "bargaining chip" with the international community.

Jang, viewed as the most powerful adviser in the new leadership, "will lead the country along with his wife Kim Kyong Hui for up to a year," Georgy Toloraya, Russian Academy of Science Director for Asia and Africa, told RFA.

"Kim Jong Il’s wife might also be included in the group of multi-lateral leadership," he said, adding that any possibility of a military coup in North Korea in the aftermath of Kim's death is "very low."


Underlining the importance of the uncle-aunt team to Kim Jong Un is a last photograph of Kim Jong Il released at the weekend by the official news agency KCNA.

In the photo, Kim Jong Il was seen descending on an escalator at a Pyongyang supermarket while behind him were a group that included his sister and her husband Jang standing on the steps below and above their nephew.

It was Kim Jong Il who brought Jang back to the limelight, appointing him to the National Defense Commission in 2009, the supreme leadership council he led as head of the military state.

Jang had disappeared from public view for a couple of years until 2006. Some reports said he was sidelined for forming factions and maneuvering to oust the elder Kim.

Nicolas Levi, adviser at the Polish Academy of Sciences, told RFA that Jang "is expected to be the practical decision-maker of North Korean politics" with Kim Jong Un as the “face of the North Korean leadership for some time."

"It is important in the North Korean leadership to keep the Kim bloodline," he said.


Some experts wonder whether the Jang-wife team will jell well with Kim Jong Un as he assumed more official duties.

They pointed out that Jang was not in the good books of Kim Jong Il's father and North Korea's founder, Kim Il Sung.

"Whereas Kim Jong Il's father took care to remove the Dear Leader's uncle from Pyongyang's decision-making constellation at the start of his son's ascent, Kim Jong Il saw to it that Jong Un's uncle and aunt—Jang Song Thaek and Kim Kyong Hui—would both be in the royal court to provide tender care and advice for their beloved nephew," noted Nicholas Eberstadt, an expert at American Enterprise Institute.

"Such arrangements, needless to say have not always worked out well for young royals, whether in Korean history, or elsewhere," he said.

Jang was 19th on the list of 232 officials of Kim's funeral committee, behind his wife. Ri Yong Ho, a rising star in North Korea's military and its chief of staff, was ranked fourth.

Kim Jong Un, who heads the funeral committee, made his public debut as anointed successor only 15 months ago.

He "hasn’t set his own system of governance," Toloraya said.


Kim Jong Un (C) with senior officials from the ruling party and military paying respects to Kim Jong Il lying in state in a glass coffin in Pyongyang, Dec. 20, 2011.

Kim, whose age has never been revealed in North Korea, is 27 years old, a U.S. official in Washington told the Associated Press.

Of Kim Jong Il's three sons, he is most like his father in manner and personality.

"Kim Jong Il picked the apple that didn't fall far from the tree," the U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told AP. "He didn't select a successor who he believed would radically depart from his vision for North Korea."

It is still not clear when Kim Jong Un, hailed by the North Korean state media as the "Great Successor," will formally assume power.

On Tuesday, he made his first public appearance following his father's death from a heart attack on Saturday.

He paid respects to his father who lay in state in Pyongyang ahead of a Dec. 28 funeral, bowing deeply alongside members of the elder Kim's inner circle comprising those in their 60s, 70s, and 80s.

Some believe that Jang, his wife, and Ri may work hard to ensure that Kim Jong Un succeeds as the third generational leader.

"One cannot rule out that somebody will challenge the new leader, but I am inclined to believe that the North Korean decision-makers will remain united, since their disunity might bring the regime down, and they know it," Andrei Lankov, a professor at Kookmin University in Seoul and a North Korea expert, told RFA.

"They have long ago learned the famous saying: If we do not hang together, we will be hanged separately”

Reported by RFA's Korean Service. Translated by Hee Jung Yang. Written in English with additional reporting by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.


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Dec 20, 2011 06:23 AM

Each North Korean dictator in the Kim dynasty seems fatter than the previous one. The Kim family stuffs its face more than ever while much of the rest of Korea outside of Pyongyang goes malnourished, with at least a million having starved to death there in recent years. All the wonders of so-called socialism.

Dec 20, 2011 09:14 AM

Your majesty,Noroudom Sihanouk it's been four decades in politices was pushing North Korea be succeed because of we had sacrifice human lifes 17.000 000 under the name of Pol Pot.