North Korea's young leader Kim Jong Un has been portrayed as a tough talking leader setting the world's nerves on edge with his belligerence, but many analysts believe the real powers behind-the-scenes are Kim's aunt and uncle.
Among Kim's small inner circle the most influential, often referred to as the "first family," are Kim's aunt Kim Kyong-Hui and her husband Jang Sung-Taek, both 66. The power couple were reportedly anointed by late-Kim Jong Il to help his 30 year-old son consolidate his position as the new figurehead and control the 1.2 million member military.
The duo was spotted most recently sitting on each side of Kim at Sunday's plenary meeting of the central committee of the ruling Workers' Party when Kim issued his latest defiant remarks, vowing to keep nuclear weapons as "the nation's life treasure" and saying it will not be traded even for "billions of dollars."
Kim Jong Un's father, analysts say, had decades of training to lead the country and control the military, but the young Kim made his debut while still in his 20s with little time as his father's understudy. North Korean people had not even heard of his existence until just a couple years before Kim Jong Il's death.
Creating an image as a military leader is partially behind the heated rhetoric of the past few months in which Kim has threatened the U.S., South Korea, shut down hot lines and ordered his missile batteries to be readied to be fired.
"They are in a hurry to establish Kim's image as a powerful military leader to gain respect and control. And the ones doing that are Kim Kyong Hui and her husband Jang," said Jeung Young Tai, senior research fellow at Korea Institute for National Unification.
Kim Kyong-Hui, a younger sister of late-Kim Jong Il, has been a central political figure in North Korean politics for the past 40 years. She is believed to have been purged from 2003 to 2009 when she suddenly disappeared from public view. But she has reemerged in a key role in transferring power from her brother to her nephew. She was made a four star general in 2010 and appointed as the director of Workers' Party of Korea's Organization and Guidance Department, which is considered as the most prestigious post inside the Party.
Her husband, Jang Sung-Taek was a close confidant to late-Kim Jong Il and led the national guards in charge of protecting the head of state.
Jang also spearheaded North Korea's ill-fated attempts to revive its economy, making numerous trips to Chinese cities in hopes to duplicate China's economic success. Intelligence sources in South Korea see Jang as the counter-balancer to North Korea's military hardliners. He reportedly had opposed the idea of launching the long-range missile last December, but was overruled by his wife.
Close to Jang is North Korea's most powerful military general and the de facto No.2 figure as vice chairman of the party's Central Military Committee, Choe Ryong-Hae. Choe, 64, does not have a military background. His career path was rather a party bureaucrat and involved in managing the armed forces. But together with Jang, Choe is the chief image maker of Kim Jong Un as a primary military figure.
"They're trying desperately to portray an image of General Kim perfectly conducting the military in times of national crisis by intentionally creating a crisis situation these days," said Yun Duk-Min, professor at Korea National Diplomatic Academy.
One last power player is Kim Kyok Sik, North Korea's defense minister and a hardline military commander. He is believed to have commanded the attack on the South Korean submarine that killed 46 sailors and shelling of Yeonpyong Island in 2010. Kim served as the military attaché to Syria in the 1970s where he is suspected to have provided training support to movements in Ethiopia and Turkey.
Cho Long Park, Joanne Kim, and Hunny Jeong contributed to this report
- Politics & Government
- Military & Defense
- North Korea
- South Korea
- Kim Jong Il
- Kim Jong Un