It looks as though North Korea's hereditary dynasty is firmly in place after all. Kim Jong-un (26), the third son of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il and heir apparent to the throne, is said to be working at the powerful National Defense Commission and deeply involved in major policy decisions. And Kim Ok (45) the de facto first lady, was present as an advisor during the meeting and luncheon between the elder Kim and Hyundai Asan chairwoman Hyun Jeong-eun in August.
The leadership succession is believed to center around the younger Kim and Kim Jong-il's younger sister Kyong-hui (63), who is the light industry department head of the Workers' Party, her husband Jang Song-taek (63), the first vice-director of the Workers' Party, and Kim Ok.
Sources in North Korea say Kim Jong-un is learning the ropes from his father. "With the tacit approval of Kim Jong-un, the leadership of the Workers' Party is in the process of appointing new officials," one source claims. When Kim Jong-il was being groomed to succeed his father, he also worked at the party's organizational department, where he was busy putting his own people in key positions.
But since the middle of this year, North Korea seems to have become extremely cautious about pushing ahead with the succession, apparently due to side effects of the dynastic succession, including international criticism and overzealous loyalty to the younger Kim. Kim Yong-nam, the North's no. 2 leader, in an interview with the Japanese press expressly denied the succession.
Yet efforts to deify Kim Jong-un are clearly continuing. One North Korean defector points out that he was indoctrinated that Jong-un is "exactly like" nation founder Kim Il-sung when he was young and "possesses the perfect traits of a leader."
Kim Jong-il's younger sister Kyong-hui dropped out of view in September 2003 but reappeared in June this year. She is said to have undergone treatment for depression after her husband Jang Song-taek was sidelined in 2004 and her daughter Kum-song committed suicide due to marital problems. Her return to power is believed to be part of the regime's intention to publicize its support for Kim Jong-un's succession, according to North Korean sources.
Her husband Jang is now seen as the second most powerful man in the state, playing a key role in leading the country after Kim Jong-il's stroke in August last year. He accompanied the leader on almost 100 so-called "on-the-spot guidance" tours so far this year.
Jang is close to Pak Myong-chol, the former head of North Korea's sports committee who was reinstated as a member of the country's National Defense Commission in February. Jang is involved in a project to modernize Pyongyang, which is likely to be used as propaganda to tout Jong-un's achievements.
When Kim Jong-il was being groomed to succeed his father, he in turn built the Grand People's Study House and the People's Palace of Culture to embellish his image. Jang is also making sure that North Korean agencies loyal to Jong-un do not get too carried away in displaying their allegiance.
Kim Ok, who has been living with Kim Jong-il since 2004, is believed to have taken care of him during his illness and handled protocol, including meeting with foreign dignitaries, during that period. A high-ranking North Korean official who defected to South Korea recently, said, "Kim Ok wields tremendous influence and personally dresses down senior officials and delivers direct orders."
In contrast, Kim's eldest son Jong-nam (38), once considered the heir to the throne, continues to live overseas, while the second son Jong-chol (28) has not been seen in public.