The aunt of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un has suddenly reappeared for the first time since 2013, scotching rumours she may have been imprisoned or even executed.
Kim Kyong-hui was pictured sitting one seat along from Mr Kim at a performance to mark the Lunar New Year in state-run media on Sunday.
She is the sister of Mr Kim’s father and predecessor Kim Jong-il and was for a time an influential and significant figure in the North Korean hierarchy after the youngest Kim assumed power in 2011.
However, in 2013 her husband Jang Song-thaek, who was widely believed to be the second-most powerful figure in the regime, was abruptly demoted, accused of betraying the authorities and then executed.
Since then, Ms Kim had not been seen in public again, raising speculation she could have been caught up in her husband’s purging and perhaps killed as well.
“Many North Korea-watchers had assumed that Kim Kyong-hui had gone into exile or even [been] killed in the wake of her husband’s death, so to see her pop up by the leader’s side some six years later is certainly a surprise,” said Oliver Hotham, the managing editor of NK News, a Seoul-based organisation that monitors North Korea.
As well as featuring in pictures published after the event, Ms Kim’s name was also mentioned in a list of dignitaries present by the state-run news agency KCNA.
She appeared second in the list, after Choe Ryong-hae, North Korea’s deputy leader.
“The sudden appearance of major officials in a regime like North Korea’s is always massively important,” said Michael Madden, a North Korea expert with the American thinktank the Stimson Center.
“Even if she does not have a political office or formal position in the regime, making a personal appearance like this is a public demonstration of support for her nephew,” he said. “It is a strong expression of Kim family unity.”
It is unclear why exactly Ms Kim has now been allowed to re-emerge in public, although the fact she was placed so highly in the list of officials could suggest she has been given some kind of new role in the government.
Power in Mr Kim’s North Korea is often very tenuous and previously leading figures have been suddenly purged without clear explanations, and then even brought back into the fold later.
The dictator is also believed to have ordered the assassination of his own half-brother, Kim Jong-nam, using the VX nerve agent at a Malaysian airport in 2017.