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

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