In the News – Buzz Over Who’s Not in North Korea Picture(s)

In the News – Buzz Over Who’s Not in North Korea Picture(s)

Published: December 22, 2011

Korean Central News Agency, via Agence France-Presse - Getty Image

SEOUL, South Korea — Researchers scrutinizing North Korea’s official images and lists of mourners paying respects to Kim Jong-ilhave noticed two conspicuous absences: the elder brothers of Kim Jong-un, the appointed heir.

They have also been buzzing about the appearance of Kim Ok, one of Kim Jong-il’s closest aides, who has served as the North’s de facto first lady since Kim Jong-un’s mother died in 2004. She showed up on Wednesday in the North’s press coverage of mourners at the Kumsusan mausoleum in Pyongyang, the capital, where Kim Jong-il’s body has been on display in a glass coffin since the official announcement of his death on Monday.

Identifying the mourners and absentees in the world’s most closed society is one of the few ways available to outsiders trying to solve the mystery of the unfolding succession in Pyongyang. They are looking for any clues about whether Kim Jong-un, the second son of Kim Jong-il’s third wife, will be able to assert control over the monolithic dictatorship established by his father and grandfather.

Similar questions hung over Kim Jong-il when he was anointed North Korea’s leader in 1994. But the intrigue is much deeper this time because of Kim Jong-un’s youth and inexperience and the convoluted relations in the extended Kim family.

How North Korea choreographs the official funeral, scheduled for Dec. 28, could provide further insight into who is rising or fading — especially among Kim Jong-un’s immediate relatives.

The intelligence work is largely a guessing game of separating fact from myth about the lives of the children Kim Jong-il had with three different women. Kim Jong-un is thought to have a brother, a sister, a half brother and at least one half sister.

But this is not a family known for togetherness. Kim Jong-il’s first wife, who bore Mr. Kim’s eldest son, Kim Jong-nam, fell out of favor and was alone in Moscow when she died, suffering from depression and diabetes.


Kim Jong-il later left his second wife, who gave birth to a daughter but no son, to live with Ko Young-hee, a star with Pyongyang’s premier opera and Kim Jong-un’s mother. Before she died, South Korean news media carried unconfirmed reports that Ms. Ko had been behind a plot to have Kim Jong-nam assassinated while he was traveling in Europe because he could be a rival to her sons.

Kim Jong-chol, 30, was Kim Jong-il’s first son with Ms. Ko. But his father considered him too feminine to lead the North’s militaristic regime, North Korea scholars in Seoul said.

And according to a Japanese sushi chef who in 2003 published a memoir about his experience working for the Kim family, the favorite son was Kim Jong-un, who closely resembles his grandfather, Kim Il-sung, the North’s founding president and a godlike figure among North Koreans.

From an early age, Kim Jong-un liked to wear a military uniform and displayed hostility toward Japan, Korea’s former colonial ruler, the chef said.

The man who could have been Kim Jong-un’s biggest competitor — his half brother Kim Jong-nam, 40 — now lives in effective exile in the Chinese gambling enclave of Macao. In occasional interviews with the news media, he has sounded aloof or, more recently, critical of the dynastic succession unfolding in Pyongyang.

Since Kim Jong-il’s death, there have been no public sightings of Kim Jong-nam. His name was not on the list of 232 prominent North Koreans organizing the state funeral. And not just paparazzi are in pursuit. Intelligence officials hold open the possibility that should the young, inexperienced Kim Jong-un fail to meet the expectations of hard-line generals in Pyongyang, they might summon home Kim Jong-nam, setting off an intrigue in which violence could not be ruled out.

“If I were Kim Jong-nam, I wouldn’t come to the father’s funeral; to Kim Jong-un, he is more a political enemy than a half brother,” said Choi Jin-wook of the Korea Institute for National Unification, a research group in Seoul. “This is a precarious time for his siblings. They must lie low; at a critical time like this, there are people too eager to prove their loyalty to the new king by removing anyone seen as threatening.”

Even if the siblings travel for their father’s funeral, North Korean officials may keep them out of public view to prevent them from stealing attention from Kim Jong-un, analysts said. Should their brother consolidate power, at best, they would be allowed a comfortable life, holding honorary titles at home or ambassadorships.

According to Baek Seung-joo at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses in Seoul, an important indicator in the coming months will be whether Kim Jong-un will assume the top five titles his father held — general secretary of the ruling Workers’ Party, chairman of the party’s Central Military Commission, presidium member of the Politburo, chairman of the National Defense Commission and supreme commander of the People’s Army. The son is now a four-star general and vice chairman of the Central Military Commission.

On Thursday, the North’s main party paper, Rodong Sinmun, said that the “great successor” Kim Jong-un would honor the “dying wishes” of his father by continuing his “military first” policy, which gives priority to the army in the allocation of resources.

Important players in the unfolding power game include two other relatives: Kim Jong-un’s aunt, Kim Kyung-hee, and her husband, Jang Song-taek, both 65.

“With his father gone sooner than expected, Kim Jong-un will have to depend on and even listen to his aunt and uncle more than ever,” Mr. Baek said.

KRT, via Associated Press

The aunt, a Politburo member and the minister for light industry, and the uncle, vice chairman of the National Defense Commission, have been instrumental in establishing Kim Jong-un’s official standing since Kim Jong-il suffered a stroke in 2008.

Now ailing, the aunt is a blood relative whom Kim Jong-un can probably trust. She was a loyal family member who stood by her brother in the 1970s as he plotted against and purged their half brothers and a powerful uncle. The uncle, Mr. Jang, is a different story.

Mr. Jang is seen by analysts as a shrewd power broker who has drawn generals and party officials to his side. Kim Jong-il purged him twice before reinstating him in response to his beloved sister’s appeals, Mr. Choi said.

Whether Mr. Jang will retire after seeing his nephew settled into power or will cultivate his own ambition is a prime topic of speculation among North Korea watchers.

“He can be a savvy and stabilizing interlocutor between rival factions as Kim Jong-un is expected to rely on a council of senior mentors before establishing his own power,” said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul.

Sohn Kwang-joo, a longtime researcher on the Kim family at Gyeonggi Research Institute, said the fate of Kim Jong-un’s siblings and Mr. Jang could be predicted from Kim Jong-il’s treatment of his own half brothers and uncle. After Kim Jong-il consolidated his place in the hierarchy in the 1970s, he forced his half brother, Pyong-il, to live in a form of permanent exile as the North Korean ambassador to various European countries. His once-powerful uncle, Kim Young-ju, was banished from the capital before being given a ceremonial job in Pyongyang.

“Kim Jong-nam will have to spend the rest of his life abroad,” Mr. Sohn said. “Jang Song-taek, the most needed now, will become the first to be discarded with a titular post once Kim Jong-un is comfortable with his power. He knows that’s the way the power game in Pyongyang goes.”

“But if you want to know how Jang will react to this future, you will have to read a novel,” he said.


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