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The power behind the throne in North Korea

SEOUL: 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.

“Jang has played a considerable role during Kim Jong Il’s illness of managing the succession problem and even the North’s relations with the United States and China,” said Yang Moo Jin of the University of North Korean Studies. “Jang is in overall charge of the job of making it formal for Kim Jong Un to be the legal and systematic leader by pulling together the party and the military.”

Jong Un is Kim Jong Il’s third known son and was given official titles only last year. He was hailed by state media this week as the “Great Successor” to his father, who died Saturday of a heart attack.

Jang had the full backing of his brother-in-law, who named him to the National Defense 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 commission has been the pinnacle of power in North Korea and which Kim had used to preach his own version of political teaching called Songun, or “military first.”

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, who also holds the humble title of a department chief in the ruling Workers’ Party, disappeared from public for two years before returning in 2006, widely believed to have been purged then rehabilitated as part of a power struggle involving backers of Kim’s second and third wives.

He is considered a pragmatist who earned Kim Jong Il’s trust because of his understanding of domestic politics and economic policy.

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, according to the North’s state media.

Few observers believe either Jang or his wife will try to push the junior Kim out and grab power for themselves.

“That would kindle a power struggle that will get out of control, and they will know better than to do that,” said Yang of the University of North Korean Studies.

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.

“Jang was loyal but he was very powerful, and that could have been a source of anxiety to some degree [to Kim Jong Il],” said Paik Hak Soon, an expert on the North’s powerful structure at the Sejong Institute.

The North’s power elite is formally a three-pronged structure of the military, the Workers’ Party of Korea and the parliament. The National Defense Commission is the state’s supreme leadership body, which Kim headed.

The Workers’ Party of Korea was also headed by Kim until his death and a general meeting last year was meant to revive its status as the primary source of power.

Parliament is headed by Kim Yong Nam, a loyal but passive figurehead who analysts say poses no threat to the power transition.

They also say it is unclear how the individual interests of the elite will work to drive the state through what is the closest thing to a power vacuum it has known.

One thing is clear – the elite want to survive and know they cannot afford a power struggle.

“The North Korean leadership is united,” said Andrei Lankov of Kookmin University in Seoul. “They understand that they should hang together in order not to be hanged separately.”

Jang, his wife Kim and Vice Marshal Ri are expected to make sure Jong Un survives as the third generational leader and that North Korea holds together at least through the centenary of Kim Il Sung’s birth in 2012.

“These people make up a crisis management community,” said Cho Min of the Korea Institute for National Unification.

“They will be ensuring that everyone understands that it is in no one’s interest to try to stand up against Kim Jong Un.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on December 21, 2011, on page 10.

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