Rumors of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's aunt Kim Kyong-hui's death have raised speculation that the regime is weakening.
Hwang Jang-yop, the highest-ranking North Korean defector who died in 2010, had predicted that Kim's leadership would be supported by his aunt and her husband Jang Song-taek. But with Jang and now Kim Kyong-hui out of the picture, the North Korean leader appears to be on his own.
Without these mentors, the mistakes of the young could become more noticeable, experts say. Officials will probably keep their heads down for now as they reel from Jang’s brutal execution, but any missteps by Kim could in the long run lead to unrest.
The Institute for National Security Strategy said in a forecast that North Korea's power elite may have pledged allegiance to Kim for now but will eventually grow critical of his absolute power. The institute warned that "criticism among the elite will intensify" should Kim repeatedly make mistakes.
Kim Keun-sik, a North Korea expert at Kyungnam University, said, "Over the short term, Kim Jong-un will strengthen his sole grip on power, but over the long term, instability will increase." He added that Kim is not protected by former partisan soldiers like his grandfather, nation founder Kim Il-sung, and has been unable to build up a strong base of supporters like his father, Kim Jong-il, who was groomed for 20 years to assume the throne.
The absence of his aunt is also expected to weaken justification for the hereditary succession of the so-called "Baekdu bloodline" to lead the country. The Baekdu bloodline refers to direct descendents of Kim Il-sung.
The biggest weakness of Kim, who marks his third year as leader of the reclusive state, is that he has been unable to rack up any startling achievements that would have justified his position.
Jan. 8 marks Kim's 30th birthday, but that has not been designated a national holiday. However, other experts see no major threats.
Chung Sung-jang at the Sejong Institute said Kim Kyong-hui's absence would not have any effect since every aspect of the lives of elite Workers Party officials is tightly controlled, with Minister for State Security Kim Won-hong responsible for monitoring and controlling the lives of top officials, while military Politburo chief Choe Ryong-hae has a firm grip on the army.