The power behind the throne in North Korea was a dashing accordion player in his youth, whose life changed when he met the daughter of autocratic North Korean founder Kim Il-sung at university and wooed and married her despite the dictator’s opposition.
Now an ascetic-looking, bespectacled 65, Jang Song-thaek has overcome a purge, bitter palace intrigue and personal tragedy to become the chief adviser to his nephew Kim Jong-un, the third-generation leader of North Korea after his father Kim Jong-il’s death last week.
While little is publicly known about North Korea’s first family, acquaintances, South Koreans who met Jang during a 2002 visit and analysts say he could steer the young Kim toward opening up one of the world’s most isolated states.
“He did seem to be someone who’s more interested in the outside of North Korea and more interested in the rest of the world,” former US assistant secretary of state Christopher Hill said, adding however that he needed to see more evidence.
“Jang Song-thaek is interesting,” Hill added, who traveled to Pyongyang as a US special nuclear envoy from 2005 to 2008.
In recent pictures out of Pyongyang, Jang is one of the few men in civilian clothes seen standing near Kim Jong-un at the mausoleum where his father’s body lies in state.
Jang is a leading member of the coterie that will now rule North Korea, a source with close ties to Pyongyang and Beijing said this week.
His official titles include vice chairman of the National Defense Commission, the supreme leadership council which Kim Jong-il led as head of the military state.
In Seoul, officials and other sources said Jang has three traits that make him suited to run, or at least influence the running of North Korea: He understands the mechanics of Pyongyang’s power structure, he knows South Korea well and he has good connections in North Korea’s 1.2 million-strong military.
Han Kap-soo, a former South Korean agriculture minister who hosted the North Korean delegation in 2002, said Jang was diffident, but clearly not someone to be taken lightly. He was also fond of a drink.
“As expected, the focus was on Jang,” Han said.
“But he never came out in front. When we tried to take pictures, he tried to move to the back,” Han added.
However, one morning, after a night of hard drinking, Jang failed to emerge from his room on time. No one dared knock on his door.
“I thought: ‘Oh, people can’t even go wake him up,’” Han said.
Jang was born in 1946. He was not from the North Korean elite and not the sort of husband Kim Il-sung wanted for his headstrong daughter Kim Kyong-hui, an author.
Nevertheless, he attended the prestigious Kim Il-sung University in Pyongyang.
“He drank well and was fun and played the accordion well. And he was a very smart guy,” said Jang Sung-min, author of the book War and Peace: Where is North Korea headed after Kim Jong-il?
“So many girls liked him. He was so charming, that’s why Kim [Kyong-hui] fell in love with him,” Jang said.
Joo Sung-ha, a defector, said the couple, who were classmates, continued to meet despite opposition and Jang’s exile to another university.
“Kim Kyong-hui drove Kim Il-sung’s Mercedes whenever she had time to meet Jang and did laundry for him after he moved to another university due to Kim Il-sung’s opposition,” Joo said, citing other North Korean sources.