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

Egypt's Suez Canal Dreams Tempered by Continued Unrest

Seen as a potential driver of recovery, Cairo’s plan to expand waterway had been raising hopes to give country much needed economic boost More

Ebola Maternity Ward in Sierra Leone First of its Kind

Country already had one of world's highest maternal mortality rates before Ebola arrived, virus has added even more complications to health care More

Malaysia Flight 370 Disappearance Ruled Accident

Aircraft disappeared on March 8, 2014; with ruling, families of 239 passengers and crew can now seek compensation from airline More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
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.
Super Bowl Ads Compete for Eyes on TV, Webi
X
January 29, 2015 9:58 AM
Super Bowl Sunday (Feb. 1) is about more than just the NFL's American football championship and big parties to watch the game. Viewers also tune in for the world famous commercials that send Facebook and Twitter abuzz. Daniela Schrier reports on the social media rewards for America’s priciest advertising.
Video

Video Super Bowl Ads Compete for Eyes on TV, Web

Super Bowl Sunday (Feb. 1) is about more than just the NFL's American football championship and big parties to watch the game. Viewers also tune in for the world famous commercials that send Facebook and Twitter abuzz. Daniela Schrier reports on the social media rewards for America’s priciest advertising.
Video

Video Theologians Cast Doubt on Morality of Drone Strikes

In 2006, stirred by photos of U.S. soldiers mistreating Iraqi prisoners, a group of American faith leaders and academics launched the National Religious Campaign Against Torture. It played an important role in getting Congress to investigate, and the president to ban, torture. VOA's Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Freedom on Decline Worldwide, Report Says

The state of global freedom declined for the ninth consecutive year in 2014, according to global watchdog Freedom House's annual report released Wednesday. VOA's William Gallo has more.
Video

Video As Ground Shifts, Obama Reviews Middle East Strategy

The death of Saudi Arabia’s king, the collapse of a U.S.-friendly government in Yemen and a problematic relationship with Israel’s leadership are presenting a new set of complications for the Obama administration and its Middle East policy. Not only is the U.S. leader dealing with adversaries in Iran, the Islamic State and al-Qaida, but he is now juggling trouble with traditional allies, as White House correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.
Video

Video MRI Seems to Help Diagnose Prostate Cancer, Preliminary Study Shows

Just as with mammography used to detect breast cancer, there's a lot of controversy about tests used to diagnose prostate cancer. Fortunately, a new study shows doctors may now have a more reliable way to diagnose prostate cancer for high risk patients. More from VOA's Carol Pearson.
Video

Video Smartphones About to Make Leap, Carry Basic Senses

Long-distance communication contains mostly sounds and pictures - for now. But scientists in Britain say they are close to creating additions for our smartphones that will make it possible to send taste, smell and even a basic touch. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video NASA Monitors Earth’s Vital Signs From Space

The U.S. space agency, NASA, is wrapping up its busiest 12-month period in more than a decade, with three missions launched in 2014 and two this month, one in early January and the fifth scheduled for January 29. As VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports, the instruments being lifted into orbit are focused on Earth’s vital life support systems and how they are responding to a warmer planet.
Video

Video Saved By a Mistake - an Auschwitz Survivor's Story

Dagmar Lieblova was 14 when she arrived at Auschwitz in December 1943, along with her entire Czech Jewish family. All of them were to die there, but she was able to leave after several months due to a bureaucratic mix-up which saved her life. Now 85, with three children and six grandchildren, she says she has a feeling of victory. This report by Ahmad Wadiei and Farin Assemi, of RFE/RL's Radio Farda is narrated by RFE’s Raymond Furlong.

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More

All About America

AppleAndroid