News / Asia

North Korea's Power Couple Are Key in Leadership Transition

Undated picture shows Jang Song-taek, a member of North Korea's National Defence Commission, and uncle of Kim Jong Un.
Undated picture shows Jang Song-taek, a member of North Korea's National Defence Commission, and uncle of Kim Jong Un.

The sudden death of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il has focused world attention on the North Korean dictator's inexperienced son and designated successor, Kim Jong Un. The success of the transition process now underway, though, may depend even more on the younger Kim's uncle and aunt, Jang Song Taek and Kim Kyong Hui.

As Kim Jong Il's health declined following an apparent stroke in 2008, he promoted his sister and her husband to powerful positions to boost their influence over the fate of his family dynasty.

Kim began by naming his brother-in-law, Jang Song Taek, as vice chairman of North Korea's supreme leadership body in 2009. The 65-year-old's promotion to the National Defense Commission post effectively made him number two in North Korea's hierarchy.


Kim later appointed his sister and only surviving sibling, Kim Kyong Hui, as a four-star general in September 2010. She also frequently accompanied him on trips around the country.

The late dictator also made his youngest son a four-star general last year, a sign that he was preparing Kim Jong Un to succeed him. But, the younger Kim, who is in his late 20s, lacks experience to run the country without help, especially from his uncle and aunt.

Choi Jin-wook, a director of North Korea studies at the Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul, said Kim Jong Un cannot become the official leader until he is named to several posts held by his late father.

"He has to take positions of Kim Jong Il, for example, chairman of the National Defense Commission, and chairman of central military committee in the party, and supreme commander of Korean People's Army," said Choi.

Choi told VOA that Kim Jong Il's relatives and the military endorsed the transition, but had little choice.

"There is no rationale for them to challenge Kim Jong Un's succession process," he said. "They have to do it. If they challenge this power transition, they have to take the risk of their life," said Choi.

Choi said he expects North Korea's elite to implement the transition within the coming year in the hope of ensuring their survival at the helm of the impoverished and isolated nation.

He said Jang Song Taek will be a key adviser to his nephew during the succession, while Kim Kyong Hui is likely to play a different role.

"Kim Kyong Hui, the aunt, is much, much closer to Kim Jong Un," he said. "So I think Kim Jong Un is going to be more comfortable with his aunt rather than uncle. So, Kim Kyong Hui can play a role to communicate between the uncle and his nephew."

Mike Kulma, a Korea specialist with the Asia Society in New York, said Kim Jong Un's uncle and aunt are likely to shield the younger Kim from potential rivals as the transition unfolds.

"Having his uncle be a vice chairman of the National Defense Commission, making his aunt into a more prominent position is a way perhaps to protect him going forward, as opposed to challenge him, and to prevent perhaps others from trying to challenge him," he said.

But Christopher Hill, a former U.S. ambassador to South Korea, said the uncle may not remain a protector of the younger Kim for long.

"You could also imagine Jang Sung Taek emerging, not so much as a mentor to Kim Jong Un, but rather as a rival to Kim Jong Un," he said. "After all, Jang Sung Taek has been at this game a long time, he knows a lot, so his willingness to kind of explain this to his rather underwhelming nephew might tax him more than he is prepared to accept."

Choi of the Korea Institute for National Unification agreed a power struggle cannot be ruled out once the succession is complete. He said such a struggle could trigger mass demonstrations and even a coup.

Michael Lipin

Michael covers international news for VOA on the web, radio and TV, specializing in the Middle East and East Asia Pacific. Follow him on Twitter @Michael_Lipin

You May Like

Video Russia’s Syrian Escalation Tests Obama’s Crisis Response

Critics once again question whether president has been slow to act on Syrian conflict, thus creating opening for powers like Russia More

Ancient African DNA Shows Mass Migration Back Into Africa

First genetic analysis of ancient human remains in Africa suggests massive migration from north around time of Egyptian empire More

NASA: Pluto Has Blue Sky

New photos also reveal the presence of water ice More

This forum has been closed.
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Hungary Criticized for Handling of Refugeesi
Henry Ridgwell
October 08, 2015 8:02 PM
Amnesty International has accused Hungary of breaking multiple international and European human rights laws in its handling of the refugee crisis. As Henry Ridgwell reports, thousands of migrants and refugees continue to travel through the Balkans to Hungary every day.

Video Hungary Criticized for Handling of Refugees

Amnesty International has accused Hungary of breaking multiple international and European human rights laws in its handling of the refugee crisis. As Henry Ridgwell reports, thousands of migrants and refugees continue to travel through the Balkans to Hungary every day.

Video Iraqi-Kurdish Teachers Vow to Continue Protest

Sixteen people were injured when police used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse teachers and other public employees who took to the streets in Iraq’s Kurdish north, demanding their salaries from the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG). VOA’s Dilshad Anwar, in Sulaimaniya, caught up with protesting teachers who say they have not been paid for three months. Parke Brewer narrates his report.

Video Syrian Village Community Faces Double Displacement in Lebanon

Driven by war from their village in southwestern Syria, a group of families found shelter in Lebanon, resettling en masse in a half-built university to form one of the biggest settlements of its kind in Lebanon. Three years later, however, they now face being kicked out and dispersed in a country where finding shelter as a refugee can be especially tough. John Owens has more for VOA from the city of Saida, also known as Sidon.

Video Bat Colony: Unusual Tourist Attraction in Texas

The action hero Batman might be everyone’s favorite but real bats hardly get that kind of adoration. Put more than a million of these creatures of the night together and it only evokes images of horror. Sarah Zaman visited the largest urban bat colony in North America to see just how well bat and human get along with each other.

Video Device Shows Promise of Stopping Motion Sickness

It’s a sickening feeling — the dizziness, nausea and vomiting that comes with motion sickness. But a device now being developed could stop motion sickness by suppressing certain signals in the brain. VOA’s Deborah Block reports.

Video Making a Mint

While apples, corn, and cranberries top the list of fall produce in the US, it’s also the time to harvest gum, candy, and toothpaste—or at least the oil that makes them minty fresh. Erika Celeste reports from South Bend, Indiana on the mint harvest.

Video Activists Decry Lagos Slum Demolition

Acting on a court order, authorities in Nigeria demolished a slum last month in the commercial capital, Lagos. But human rights activists say the order was illegal, and the community was razed to make way for a government housing project. Chris Stein has more from Lagos.

Video TPP Agreed, But Faces Stiff Opposition

President Barack Obama promoted the Trans-Pacific Partnership on Tuesday, one day after 12 Pacific Rim nations reached the free trade deal in Atlanta. The controversial pact that would involve about 40 percent of global trade still needs approval by lawmakers in respective countries. Zlatica Hoke reports Obama is facing strong opposition to the deal, including from members of his own party.

Video Ukranian Artist Portrays Putin in an Unusual Way

As Russian President Vladimir Putin was addressing the United Nations in New York last month, he was also being featured in an art exhibition in Washington. It’s not a flattering exhibit. It’s done by a Ukrainian artist in a unique medium. And its creator says it’s not only a work of art - it’s a political statement. VOA’s Tetiana Kharchenko has more.

Video Nano-tech Filter Cleans Dirty Water

Access to clean water is a problem for hundreds of millions of people around the world. Now, a scientist and chemical engineer in Tanzania (in East Africa) is working to change that by creating an innovative water filter that makes dirty water safe. VOA’s Deborah Block has the story.

Video Demand Rising for Organic Produce in Cambodia

In Cambodia, where rice has long been the main cash crop, farmers are being encouraged to turn to vegetables to satisfy the growing demand for locally produced organic farm products. Daniel de Carteret has more from Phnom Penh.

Video Botanists Grow Furniture, with Pruning Shears

For something a bit out of the ordinary to furnish your home, why not consider wooden chairs, crafted by nature, with a little help from some British botanists with an eye for design. VOA’s Jessica Berman reports.

VOA Blogs