Analysis: The power behind the throne in North Korea

SEOUL Tue Dec 20, 2011 3:03am EST

1 of 4. New North Korean ruler Kim Jong-un (front) pays his respects to his father and former leader Kim Jong-il, lying in state at the Kumsusan Memorial Palace in Pyongyang in this still picture taken from video footage aired by KRT (Korean Central TV of the North) December 20, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/KRT via REUTERS TV

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SEOUL (Reuters) - 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 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 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.

MILITARY BEHIND YOUNGEST SON

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 transition.

They also say it is unclear how the individual interests of the elite will work to drive the state through what is the closet 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."

(Editing by David Chance, Raju Gopalakrishnan and Dean Yates)

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Comments (9)
marisa70394 wrote:
It seems all complicated but highly effective – after reading this, it seems nothing will really change. What seems most important to the ruling elites in North Korea is to continue living like royalty: lots of good food, lots of parties and orgies, and lots of giving the west headaches. Meanwhile, the people in North Korea starve, have meaningless lives, and the reputation of the country suffers.

Dec 20, 2011 3:18am EST  --  Report as abuse
Butch_from_PA wrote:
He kind of looks like a chubby scared mean bully in over his head. I bet he was very well tutored by his daddy though. My predictions for North Korea for 2012 is internal turf war.

The first 3 to 4 months the little king will be lost amongst his advisers and lean towards one close relative who will be whispering in his ear who is a threat. Then one bloody day in the near future a slaughter will reap up all the perceived threats.

Chubbinski will emerge to speak to the peasants saying he got rid of some very bad people. The new more taller king will rule with an iron fist – stronger and more vicious than his papa.

He will then focus his media attention to riling up the troops to reunite with South Korea and fight off the terrible imperialism.

Out of nowhere in fall of 2012 the West will notice this crazier North Korea that was silent for over 1/2 year.

Dec 20, 2011 12:32pm EST  --  Report as abuse
HAL.9000 wrote:
@Butch_from_PA:

excellent assesment.

Dec 20, 2011 1:30pm EST  --  Report as abuse
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