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The power behind Pyongyang’s throne

world Updated: Dec 21, 2011 01:40 IST
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Real power in North Korea now probably belongs to a coterie of advisers following the death of Kim Jong-il, not his youngest son, an untested man in his 20s who has been anointed the “Great Successor”.

These advisers will decide whether North Korea launches military action against South Korea to strengthen the succession around Kim Jong-un — or seeks a peaceful transition.

Confucian respect for age and the influence of the military means the younger Kim lacks the untrammeled authority of his father or grandfather, North Korean founder Kim Il-Sung.

The most powerful adviser is Jang Song-thaek, 65, brother-in-law of Kim Jong-il.

Jang is a survivor of the bloody tradition of purge and political rehabilitation that kept the two elder Kims in power for more than six decades.

Jong-un is Kim Jong-il’s third known son and was given official titles only last year.

Jang had the full backing of his brother-in-law, who named him to the National Defence Commission in 2009, the supreme leadership council Kim Jong-il led as head of the military state. That appointment was part of a flurry of moves Kim Jong-il made following a stroke in 2008 which probably brought home the reality that, unlike his father at his death in 1994, he was unprepared for a trusted son to take over.

The naming of Jang as a vice chairman of the commission effectively catapulted him to the second most powerful position in the country. It also put him in line to become caretaker leader of the dynastic state in the event Kim was unable to orchestrate a gradual transition of power and the grooming of Jong-un.

Jang ranked 19th on the list of 232 officials of the funeral committee for Kim, behind his wife and the sister of the dead leader, Kim Kyong-hui. Jong-un heads the group. As the party’s light industry department chief, Kim Kyong-hui, 65, is the link that ties Jang to the ruling family. She had been the person Kim Jong-il had increasingly turned to in recent years for advice and friendship, analysts in Seoul say.

She is also believed to have had a drinking problem, which had kept her sidelined for months at a time. But she was the most active companion of Kim Jong-il during his frequent field guidance trips.

Few observers believe either Jang or his wife will try to push the junior Kim out and grab power for themselves. With the military already very powerful, there appears to be little risk of a coup or the kind of regime change seen in the Arab world this year.

Ri Yong-ho, the rising star of the North’s military and its chief of staff, is ranked fourth on the list of funeral committee officials, an indication of the power he wields not only in the army but as Kim Jong-il’s confidante in domestic politics. Ri, despite being on good terms with Jang, provides an ideal balance to the power of Kim’s brother-in-law.