Last week's rocket launch by North Korea has once again focused international attention on the renegade country, especially the opaque clique that runs it. Besides the titular leader Kim Jong-un, whose first anniversary in power the launch marked, pundits are wondering what role is played by the young leader's uncle Jang Song-taek, often described as the eminence grise behind the throne, and his aunt Kim Kyong-hui.
Kim Jong-un introduced Jang to top officials early this year as his "closest revolutionary comrade," one informed source said Sunday. Another source in China said Jang reviews all official documents that are reported to Kim, advising him and intervening in policy decisions. Senior North Korean officials "believe Jang controls Kim from behind the scenes."
Jang accompanied Kim on 100 out of his 143 public appearances this year, the most frequently spotted official next to the young leader. "An official accompanying Kim usually has something to do with the facility he is visiting," said a government official here. "That Jang accompanies Kim regardless of the kind of venue demonstrates his level of influence."
Jang was one of the two high-ranking officials who accompanied Kim on his visit to the control center last Wednesday ahead of the rocket launch. The other was Pak To-chun, the secretary for munitions in the Workers Party.
China rolled out the red carpet for Jang when he went on a six-day state visit to Beijing in August. Last month, Jang was appointed head of North Korea's Sports Guidance Commission, a position that has emerged as a new power base, and South Korean intelligence believe he has also gained control of the Guard Command, which handles security for Kim.
The source of Jang's influence is his wife Kim Kyong-hui, the sister of former leader Kim Jong-il, who is believed to have taken over the reins along with Jang and Kim Jong-il's wife Kim Ok when the former North Korean leader suffered a massive stroke in 2008. Kim Kyong-hui was also influential in the appointment of Kim Jong-un to succeed his father.
The South's National Intelligence Service told the National Assembly in July this year that Kim Kyong-hui (66) is Kim Jong-un's "advisor." Some pundits say Kim was a heavy drinker and is in poor health, and Jang's position would be in jeopardy without her.
The couple's legitimacy comes from the fact that they are members of the Kim family. "Nobody can tell what will happen to Jang Song-taek when Kim Kyong-hui dies or how that will affect Kim Jong-un," said one informed source. "Kim Jong-un's leadership may hinge on his aunt's health."