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Family intrigue shadows North Korea’s secretive dynasty

SEOUL » Researchers scrutinizing North Korea’s official images and lists of mourners paying respects to Kim Jong Il have noticed two conspicuous absences: the elder brothers of Kim Jong Un, the appointed heir.

They also have been buzzing about the appearance of Kim Ok, one of Kim Jong Il’s closest aides, who has served as the North’s de facto first lady since Kim Jong Un’s mother died in 2004. She showed up Wednesday in the North’s press coverage of mourners at the Kumsusan mausoleum in Pyongyang, the capital, where Kim Jong Il’s body has been on display in a glass coffin since the official announcement of his death Monday.

Identifying the mourners and absentees in the world’s most closed society is one of the few ways available to outsiders trying to solve the mystery of the unfolding succession in Pyongyang. They are looking for any clues about whether Kim Jong Un, the second son of Kim Jong Il’s third wife, will be able to assert control over the monolithic dictatorship established by his father and grandfather.

Similar questions hung over Kim Jong Il when he was anointed North Korea’s leader in 1994. But the intrigue is much deeper this time because of Kim Jong Un’s youth and inexperience and the convoluted relations in the extended Kim family.

How North Korea choreographs the official funeral, scheduled for Dec. 28, could provide further insight into who is rising or fading — especially among Kim Jong Un’s immediate relatives.

The intelligence work is largely a guessing game of separating fact from myth about the lives of the children Kim Jong Il had with three different women. Kim Jong Un is thought to have a brother, a sister, a half brother and at least one half sister.

But this is not a family known for togetherness. Kim Jong Il’s first wife, who bore Kim’s eldest son, Kim Jong Nam, fell out of favor and was alone in Moscow when she died, suffering from depression and diabetes.

Kim Jong Il later left his second wife, who gave birth to a daughter but no son, to live with Ko Young Hee, a star with Pyongyang’s premier opera and Kim Jong Un’s mother. Before she died, South Korean news media carried unconfirmed reports that Ko had been behind a plot to have Kim Jong Nam assassinated while he was traveling in Europe because he could be a rival to her sons.

Kim Jong Chol, 30, was Kim Jong Il’s first son with Ko. But his father considered him too feminine to lead the North’s militaristic regime, North Korea scholars in Seoul said.

And according to a Japanese sushi chef who in 2003 published a memoir about his experience working for the Kim family, the favorite son was Kim Jong Un, who closely resembles his grandfather, Kim Il Sung, the North’s founding president and a godlike figure among North Koreans.

From an early age, Kim Jong Un liked to wear a military uniform and displayed hostility toward Japan, Korea’s former colonial ruler, the chef said.

The man who could have been Kim Jong Un’s biggest competitor — his half brother Kim Jong Nam, 40 — now lives in effective exile in the Chinese gambling enclave of Macao. In occasional interviews with the news media, he has sounded aloof or, more recently, critical of the dynastic succession unfolding in Pyongyang.

Since Kim Jong Il’s death, there have been no public sightings of Kim Jong Nam. His name was not on the list of 232 prominent North Koreans organizing the state funeral. And not just paparazzi are in pursuit. Intelligence officials hold open the possibility that should the young, inexperienced Kim Jong Un fail to meet the expectations of hard-line generals in Pyongyang, they might summon home Kim Jong Nam, setting off an intrigue in which violence could not be ruled out.

"If I were Kim Jong Nam, I wouldn’t come to the father’s funeral; to Kim Jong Un, he is more a political enemy than a half-brother," said Choi Jin-wook of the Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul. "This is a precarious time for his siblings. They must lie low; at a critical time like this, there are people too eager to prove their loyalty to the new king by removing anyone seen as threatening." Even if the siblings travel for their father’s funeral, the regime would likely keep them out of public view to prevent them from stealing limelight from Kim Jong Un, analysts said. Should their brother consolidate power, at best, they would be allowed to live a comfortable life, holding honorary titles at home or serving ambassadorships abroad.

According to Baek Seung-joo at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses in Seoul, a key indicator in the coming months will be whether Kim Jong Un will assume the top five titles his father held — general secretary of the ruling Workers’ Party, chairman of the party’s Central Military Commission, presidium member of the Politburo, chairman of the National Defense Commission and supreme commander of the People’s Army. The son is now a four-star general and vice chairman of the Central Military Commission.

On Thursday, the North’s main party paper, Rodong Sinmun, said that the "great successor" Kim Jong Un would honor the "dying wishes" of his father by continuing his songun, or "military-first," policy, which gives priority to the army in the allocation of resources.

Key players in the unfolding power game include two other relatives: Kim Jong Un’s aunt, Kim Kyung Hee, and her husband, Jang Song Taek, both 65.

"With his father gone sooner than expected, Kim Jong Un will have to depend on and even listen to his aunt and uncle more than ever," Baek said.

The aunt, who is a Politburo member and the minister for light industry, and the uncle, who is vice chairman of the National Defense Commission, have been instrumental to establishing Kim Jong Un’s official standing since Kim Jong Il suffered a stroke in 2008.

Now ailing, the aunt is a blood relative whom Kim Jong Un can probably trust. She was a loyal family member who stood by her brother in the 1970s as he plotted against and purged their half-brothers and a powerful uncle. The uncle, Jang, is a different story.

Jang is seen by analysts as a shrewd power broker who has drawn generals and party officials to his side. Kim Jong Il purged him twice before reinstating him in response to his beloved sister’s appeals, Choi said.

Whether Jang would retire after seeing his nephew settled into power or would cultivate his own ambition is a pet topic of speculation among North Korea watchers.

"He can be a savvy and stabilizing interlocutor between rival factions as Kim Jong Un is expected to rely on a council of senior mentors before establishing his own power," said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul.

Sohn Kwang-joo, a long-time researcher on the Kim family at Gyeonggi Research Institute, said the fate of Kim Jong Un’s siblings and Jang could be predicted from his father’s treatment of his own half brothers and uncle. After Kim Jong Il consolidated power in the 1970s, he forced his half brother, Pyong Il, to live in a form of permanent exile as North Korean ambassador to various European countries. His once-powerful uncle, Kim Young-ju, was banished from the capital before he being given a ceremonial job in Pyongyang.

"Kim Jong Nam will have to spend the rest of his life abroad," said Sohn. "Jang Song Taek, the most needed now, will become the first to be discarded with a titular post once Kim Jong Un is comfortable with his power. He knows that’s the way the power game in Pyonygang goes."

"But if you want to know how Jang will react to this future, you will have to read a novel," he added.

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