North Korean Leader's Aunt Re-Emerges After Husband's Execution

Choe Sang-Hun
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un attends a wreath laying ceremony in Vladivostok, Russia, Friday, April 26, 2019. Kim paid his respects at a ceremony honoring the war dead Friday to wrap up a brief and generally successful visit to the Russian Far East for his first summit with President Vladimir Putin. (AP Photo/Alexander Khitrov)

SEOUL, South Korea — The aunt of North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un, has re-emerged in Pyongyang, the capital, the country’s media said Sunday, dispelling rumors that she was purged after her powerful husband was executed on charges of plotting a coup to topple Kim in 2013.

North Korea’s state-run media said Kim Kyong Hui, the only sister of Kim Jong Un’s father, Kim Jong Il, accompanied her nephew to an orchestra performance Saturday for Lunar New Year’s Day. Photos released in state media showed her dressed in black and sitting with her nephew, his wife, his sister and other top leaders in the front row at a theater in Pyongyang.

The fate of Kim Kyong Hui has been a subject of intense speculation since her husband, Jang Song Thaek, once considered the second most powerful man in Pyongyang, was executed in 2013. North Korean media last mentioned her name a few days after her husband’s execution when she was appointed to a committee for the state funeral of another top party official.

She then disappeared from public view, triggering rumors that she may have been executed, too. South Korean intelligence officials dismissed such rumors, saying that she was hospitalized for poor health but not purged.

She remains the closest blood link that Kim Jong Un has to his father and paternal grandfather, both of whom ruled North Korea before him.

Kim Jong Un’s grandfather, Kim Il Sung, the founder of North Korea, is still revered like a god among North Koreans. The current leader often stresses his bloodline when he needs to legitimize his rule or wants to consolidate his people around him in the face of an external crisis. The public appearance of his aunt, a daughter of Kim Il Sung, reminds North Koreans of that blood link.

Kim Jong Un needs his people’s loyalty more than ever. After a year and a half of largely fruitless diplomacy with President Donald Trump, Kim said late last month that his country would no longer hope for a diplomatic breakthrough with Washington. Instead, he said his country should prepare to endure international sanctions by tightening its belt and building a “self-reliant” economy.

Until her husband, Jang, was executed, Kim Kyong Hui had been the pre-eminent female face of the Kim family that has ruled North Korea since its founding seven decades ago.

The current leader’s father, Kim Jong Il, allowed his sister to hold key jobs in his government. But the diminutive, frail and reportedly sick sister seldom appeared in public during her brother’s rule.

But that changed after Kim Jong Il fell ill with a stroke in 2008. She and her husband raised their public profile and acted like parent-like figures as Kim Jong Un was groomed as heir apparent. After Kim Jong Il died, the couple further strengthened their power as they helped Kim Jong Un engineer purges of top officials to establish himself as supreme leader and continue the family dynasty.

Jang’s power became so expansive through the military and other key branches of the government that the current leader felt threatened.

Kim Jong Un had him executed on charges of corruption, sedition and numerous other charges in late 2013. He also ferreted out those close to Jang, who was accused of building a network of followers in the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea, the government and the Korean People’s Army.

The executions of Jang and his followers were watershed moments for Kim Jong Un’s efforts to establish himself as a monolithic leader. In 2017, North Korean agents plotted the assassination of Kim Jong Nam, the current leader’s estranged half brother, in Malaysia. Kim Jong Un may have regarded his half brother, the eldest son of his father, as a potential threat to his throne at the family-run regime, analysts say.

After Kim Kyong Hui disappeared from public view, Kim Jong Un’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, and his wife, Ri Sol Ju, replaced her as the main female face of the family.

It remained unclear whether, Kim Kyong Hui, 73, will resume an active public life. In North Korea, invitations to leadership gatherings — and how close people are placed to the current leader — are often barometers of whether an official is favored in the government.

Before rumors emerged that she had been purged, her presence had been a powerful reminder to top generals of where the root of the regime lay, and she was even seen as a regent helping guide her nephew through the North’s treacherous internal politics to ensure a smooth generational change. The offspring of those who fought to help Kim Il Sung, the current leader’s grandfather, establish himself as top leader form the loyalist core of the elite in Pyongyang today.

But her relationship with her husband had always been a subject of speculation. Even before Jang’s downfall, analysts in South Korea had speculated that the couple had a troubled marriage, especially after their only child, a daughter, committed suicide in France in 2006. In a party meeting in 2013 that condemned Jang as a traitor, he was called a depraved and corrupt womanizer.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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