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Can Kim Jong-un's uncle keep his influence in N. Korea?

Publication Date : 10-09-2012


The seemingly waning health of Kim Kyong-hui, the aunt of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, has raised the question of whether her possible absence would undermine the political legitimacy of her husband Jang Song-thaek.

Some experts argue that in the North’s dynastic ruling system, in which blood ties are crucial for legitimate leadership, Jang, seen as an influential adviser to the fledgling leader, could face a setback should his wife be seriously sick or die.

But others say that her health may not be a critical variable that would determine the political standing of her husband, as Jang built up his clout in the military, the ruling Workers’ Party and various other state organs over several decades.

A series of photos and video images recently released by the North’s state media shows that Kim Kyong-hui’s health has noticeably worsened. Kim, 66, appeared to have lost considerable weight with her pale complexion symptomatic of age-related illnesses.

In a photo published on the July 26 edition of the Rodong Sinmun, the daily of the governing party, a soldier was seen helping Kim walk down a staircase during an event to mark the completion of an amusement park.

She is thought to have suffered from alcoholism and depression due to marital discord and the sudden death of her daughter Geum-song.

Her only daughter took her own life by overdosing on sleeping pills in 2006 while studying in France, reportedly due to her parents’ opposition to her marriage plans. It is rumoured that Kim and Jang have long been estranged from each other.

Since September 2003, she had been out of the public eye. She returned to the political stage in June 2009 when she accompanied her older brother, the late strongman Kim Jong-il, during an on-site inspection of a collective farm.

The leader’s aunt has long controlled the party’s division in charge of light industry, which the new leader has recently emphasised amid his efforts to reestablish the moribund economy and pluck his people out of poverty.

In September 2010, she was made a four-star general and took core party leadership posts, becoming a member of the powerful politburo. In April this year, she was appointed secretary of the party’s Central Committee.

While recognising the possibility of a possible change that Kim Kyong-hui’s absence might bring about in the North’s political landscape, experts said Jang may continue to hold a significant sway over state affairs.

“Should Kim’s health deteriorate to a level that she cannot perform her official duties or should she die, this could, to a certain degree, undermine Jang’s standing as a member of the royal family. But it would not be a critical variable to determine his fate,” said Ahn Chan-il, director of the World North Korea Research Centre.

“For now, there may not be any stronger person than Jang that the young leader can confidently rely on.”

Jang, 66, is vice chairman of the powerful National Defense Commission and director of the ruling party’s administration, controlling the police and other key internal security affairs, and core diplomatic and economic matters.

Made a four-star general a few days after the former leader’s passing, Jang also holds considerable influence over the 1.19-million-strong military.

After Ri Yong-ho, a conservative military commander seen as an obstacle to a more flexible state governance, was sacked in July, his close aide Choe Ryong-hae, director of the General Political Bureau, has become the chief figure of the top military echelon.

For now, Jang does not appear to have any friction in the relationship with Kim Jong-un. As if to confirm his status, he has recently represented his country on a set of foreign affairs.

Last Friday, Jang visited an incense alter in Pyongyang, which was set up to mourn the death of Unification Church founder Moon Sun-myung. He delivered a message of condolence to Moon Hyung-jin, the international president of the church and youngest son of the late reverend, at the memorial site.

Jang also led the North’s delegation to China from August 13-18 during which he called on the North’s largest patron and ally for more investment.

Given Jang’s experience and huge network of people in the country, Kim Jong-un may have to seek assistance in managing state affairs, particularly when he is in the process of consolidating his power and strengthening his political legitimacy.

“Now, the country is still in a state of crisis when he needs to rely on the seasoned politician Jang. Jang’s power base, which began decades ago, is too wide and too deep in the regime. The couple’s relationship is a separate issue,” said Lee Cho-won, political science professor at Chung-Ang University.

But observers say that the new leader may have to be weaned off from Jang’s guidance sometime in the future. In an extreme case, Jang may not settle for his No. 2 position and could be a threat to the dynastic ruler, some note.

Kim Jong-un has recently been seen bringing his siblings to the political stage in what some call a move to strengthen the dynastic ruling system.

Kim Jong-un has reportedly given a senior party post to his younger sister Kim Yo-jong, who was known to have studied in Switzerland with him in the 1990s. She is assumed to have choreographed a set of recent high-profile events including a performance involving Mickey Mouse.

The leader is also rumoured to have given a high-level post in the ruling party to his older brother Kim Jong-chol, according to a source close to the matter. Jong-chol was once mentioned as the late leader’s possible successor but was not chosen, reportedly because of his weak and feminine personality.


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