During Kim Jong-il's funeral on Wednesday, seven officials apart from new leader Kim Jong-un walked alongside the hearse carrying the body, in a sign that they will form the inner core of the new regime. The seven "publicly declared their loyalty and allegiance to Kim Jong-il and his heir Jong-un. They will be the core figures of the new era," a South Korean official said.
The seven figures are connected in a complex web of power dynamics. Primus inter pares was Kim Jong-un's uncle Jang Song-taek, who stood right behind him. Long believed to have been a kind of eminence grise behind the throne, he is an influential figure in the Workers Party, having spent a long time in the party's powerful Organization and Guidance Department, which plays the role of a commissariat.
Jang also basks in the reflected glory of his dead older brothers who were generals -- Song-u, who died in 2009, and Song-gil, who died in 2006. He therefore has a strong support base in the military as well and is in a good position to monitor any opposition as he serves as the director of the party's Administration Department, which manages intelligence. Ironically his weakness, like Beria's after the death of Stalin, could be that he has too much power. Although he quietly stood behind Kim Jong-il at official events dressed in a Mao suit, he appeared for the first time wearing a general's uniform at the dead leader's coffin, standing behind Kim Jong-un.
The other six also enjoyed a series of promotions since Kim Jong-un was made heir to the throne in January 2009. Vice Marshal Ri Yong-ho is Kim Jong-un's military tutor and chief of the Army's General Staff. Then there was Kim Jong-gak, the first deputy director of the Army's General Political Bureau, which monitors every movement of North Korean Army officers. Chung Sung-jang, a senior researcher at the Sejong Institute said, "Kim Jong-gak played the most important role in Kim Jong-un getting a grip on the military."
U Dong-chuk, the first deputy director of the State Security Department and a member of the National Defense Commission, is also regarded as one of the closest aides to Kim Jong-un. A source said, "It was the State Security Department where Kim Jong-un first went to learn about government. For Jong-un, who didn't have much time, it was his priority to become familiar with the security department." As a reward for his active cooperation with Jong-un, U was promoted in 2009 and again in 2010, to the position of general.
Kim Yong-chun, a vice chairman of the National Defense Commisson which ran the country in Kim Jong-il's day, found himself standing behind Ri Yong-ho. He became one of the closest aides to Kim Jong-il after he thwarted a coup attempt in the 6th Corps in 1995, but has not been promoted recently. At a party congress in September last year, he failed to become a standing member of the Politburo, and remained a member of the party's Central Military Commission under Ri.
Kim Ki-nam, director of the party's Propaganda Department, and Choe Tae-bok, chairman of the Supreme People's Assembly, who are two very senior figures of the Workers Party, are also part of the Gang of Seven.
Kim Jong-un will need to depend heavily on Kim Ki-nam, who has 45 years of experience in propaganda and masterminded the personality cult surrounding the Kim dynasty. He led a North Korean delegation that visited Seoul to pay respects after the death of former president Kim Dae-jung in August 2009.
Choe, who has worked in education and science, is likely to have been entrusted with technological development. After Kim Jong-un was appointed as the successor, North Korean media suddenly began to highlight science and technology, praising Jong-un for fostering what it quaintly referred to as "computerized numerical control" or CNC. A source on North Korea said, "Kim Jong-un needs his own brand, in the same way that Kim Il-sung had the 'juche' [or self-reliance] doctrine and Kim Jong-il the 'songung' [or military-first] policy, and that's likely to come from science and technology."