Kim Jong-il is being seen more frequently in the company of his sister and brother-in-law, suggesting that the Stalinist country's first family is pulling close. Kim's sister Kyong-hui (63) is the head of the Workers Party's light industry department, and her husband Jang Song-taek (63) heads the party's administration department.
According to reports in the official North Korean media, the couple accompanied Kim during his so-called on-the-spot guidance tours on 12 occasions last year, 10 of them in December alone, after the disastrous currency reform. They accompanied Kim six times so far this year.
A South Korean government official said, "Almost all photos or video clips of Kim Jong-il's recent on-the-spot guidance tours show Kim Kyong-hui and Jang Song-taek" standing close to him.
Kim Kyong-hui is the only sibling who shared the same mother as Kim and had been last seen in a souvenir photo of the 11th Supreme People's Assembly taken in September 2003. But she made a reappearance during Kim Jong-il's visit to a cooperative farm in South Hamgyong Province in June last year.
According to a North Korean source, Kim Kyong-hui suffered from alcohol abuse and depression during her absence and was rumoured to be feuding with her husband after their daughter Jang Kum-song committed suicide.
Baek Seung-joo, a senior researcher at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses, said, "Since he had a stroke, Kim Jong-il has appeared to believe that he can trust only his family." "It's evidence of old age," said Prof. Yang Moo-jin of Kyungnam University.
Kim Jong-il apparently believes that his family will not stand in the way of his third son succeeding to the leadership. There is also speculation that he is traveling with his sister and her husband to prevent possible controversy over the authenticity of his wishes if he suddenly dies or loses consciousness.
If something happens to Kim Jong-il, it would be inevitable for the North Korean leadership to rule according to his last wishes, because heir apparent Kim Jong-un, who is in his mid-20s, is considered too young to take power and thus his succession could lead to a power struggle. The source said, "There would be no controversy over the authenticity of his last wishes if two members of his family claim they have heard them."