Real power in North Korea now probably belongs to a coterie of advisers following the death of Kim Jong-il — not his youngest son, Kim Jong-un, 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 US 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,” he added.
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 on 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 Jong-il 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 Jong-il 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 view for two years before returning in 2006, widely believed to have been purged and then rehabilitated as part of a power struggle involving backers of Kim Jong-il’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.
However, she was the most active companion of Kim Jong-il during his frequent field guidance trips, according to the North’s state media.