North Korean leader Kim Jong-il's brother-in-law Jang Song-taek attended a ground-breaking ceremony for the Hwanggumpyong Island development project on Wednesday, a pregnant symbol of North Korea-China economic cooperation. Jang, who is widely seen as the regime's grey eminence, was the highest-ranking North Korean official at the ceremony.
An intelligence official said Jang has recently been overseeing not only the transfer of power but major state projects including economic cooperation with China and the modernization of Pyongyang. The official added Seoul is "paying close attention to his role."
Yet as recently as 2004, Jang fell victim to a purge and was sacked, accused of "fomenting factions" after he attended the luxurious wedding of a close confidant. But he was reinstated with a vengeance in 2007 as the top official in charge of public security at the Workers Party. He then played a key role in filling the power vacuum after Kim suffered a massive stroke in August 2008.
All his aides who were purged with him in 2004 are being reinstated as well. Choe Ryong-hae, a party secretary who came to power during a party meeting in September last year, Mun Kyong-dok, the senior secretary of the Pyongyang municipal party committee, and North Korean Ambassador to China Ji Jae-ryong are considered close to Jang, having worked with him at the Socialist Youth League in the 1990s.
Ryu Dong-ryeol, a senior researcher at the Police Science Institute, said Jang has strong support in the military thanks to the "solid connections" of his brothers Song-woo, who died 2009, and Song-gil, who died in 2006.
Meanwhile Jang's top rival Ri Je-gang, the first deputy director of the Workers Party's Organization and Guidance Department, was killed in a mysterious car accident just before Jang was promoted to vice chairman of the Defense Commission in June last year. And Ryu Kyong, a deputy director of North Korea's State Security Department, was apparently executed early this year as a result of being defeated in a power struggle with Jang.
The late Hwang Jang-yop, the highest-ranking North Korean to defect to South Korea, said, "Kim Jong-il when he was drunk slapped Jang hard in the face at a party and Jang just laughed it off. He knows how to hide his emotions."
But some say Jang's hold on power is tenuous and that Kim Jong-il and his third son Jong-un are watching him like hawks. Lee Jo-won of Chungang University said, "There is the fear that Jang may not behave so humbly after Kim Jong-il dies and he may even attempt to oust Kim Jong-un and grab power himself."