News / Asia

N. Korea Photo Hints at Kim Uncle's Enhanced Influence

North Korea defense commission vice chairman Jang Song Taek is seen in a dark brown uniform third from left in the first row at a ceremony in Pyongyang, September 9, 2012. (Rodong Sinmun photo)
North Korea defense commission vice chairman Jang Song Taek is seen in a dark brown uniform third from left in the first row at a ceremony in Pyongyang, September 9, 2012. (Rodong Sinmun photo)
A recent photograph of North Korea's leader and his military entourage is stirring speculation that Kim Jong Un's uncle may have a new role.

In a country where the smallest details involving public appearances by North Korea's leader are choreographed, a uniform change for a key insider is drawing notice. The vice chairman of the national defense commission, Jang Song Taek, has switched his military uniform from light to dark brown.

All of the other top brass seen during a ceremony Sunday to mark the country's 64th anniversary were clad in light brown.

Elite unit

The Chosun Ilbo newspaper in South Korea, quoting an intelligence official here, says this means Jang, a four-star general who is the uncle of the new, young leader, Kim Jong Un, is now in charge of the most elite bodyguard unit.

The General Guard Bureau is at the core of the Kim family dynasty.

Chang Yong-seok, a senior researcher at Seoul National University's Institute for Peace and Reunification Studies, says Jang's dark brown uniform is not designed for the general military and this indicates the general is likely controlling an elite unit, perhaps the leadership guard.

Chang explains that the guards used to be divided into two different units under Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il but now it is unified with the primary duty to protect Kim Jong Un.

Analysts say the unit, which is linked to the army but not under its control, has tens of thousands of elite personnel, including intelligence operatives, with control over anti-artillery batteries, missiles, combat tanks and armored limousines. It would also be tasked with fending off any internal coup attempts.

Putting the man in the dark brown uniform in charge would further cement family ties between the elite unit's leadership and the Kim dynasty.

Power couple

Jang is married to the daughter of North Korea's founder, Kim Il Sung.

Sixty-six year-old Kim Kyong Hui herself is also a four-star general - the first woman in North Korea to hold that rank - and seen in recent photographs looking comparatively frail.

Elite defectors from the North frequently describe the only sister of the late Kim Jong Il as a powerful influence not only over her husband, but her nephew, as well. They say she has a reputation for being ill-mannered and struggling with alcoholism.

The couple has been described as North Korea's top power couple but they were out of the limelight in the middle of the previous decade, apparently purged. But they fully resurfaced several years ago, and began taking on more influential roles after Kim Jong Il began grooming his youngest son to succeed him.

Second in command

Analyst Chang says based on Jang's recent meeting with top officials in China and being among those to greet a religious delegation last week from South Korea, he can now be regarded as the second-in-command in Pyongyang controlling affairs of state.

The researcher says Jang, who is more outward looking than others of his generation, may be influencing economic and political initiatives that could bring about change in the impoverished country.

Kim Jong Un, who is not yet 30 years of age, is regarded to have firmly secured his grip on power after succeeding his father who died at the age of 69 last December.

Steve Herman

A veteran journalist, Steve Herman is VOA's Southeast Asia Bureau Chief and Correspondent, based in Bangkok.

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