The Regent Behind the Son

By Guo, Jerry | Newsweek International, October 4, 2010 | Go to article overview
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The Regent Behind the Son

Guo, Jerry, Newsweek International

Byline: Jerry Guo

The real power in Pyongyang will pass to Kim's brother-in-law, not to his child.

The historic conference of the Korean Workers' Party this week is Kim Jong-il's coming-out party for his third son, Kim Jong-un, the heir apparent who is so enigmatic, the outside world isn't even certain what he looks like. But in the shadows stands an even more obscure figure, a power player at the center of an uncertain struggle over who will hold the reins to the nuclear-armed Hermit Kingdom after the ailing Dear Leader.

It's 64-year-old Jang Song-taek, not the late-20-something Kim, that North Korean hands should be scrambling to unravel. The brother-in-law of the Dear Leader, Jang has over the last couple of years become Kim Jong-il's right-hand man, groomed to be the regent for the younger Kim. While Kim Jong-il was introduced to the world at the last party conference in 1980 and spent the next 14 years watching his father, Kim Jong-un's succession has been more rushed. Educated in Switzerland, the younger Kim cannot match his father's power base or charisma, particularly because he never played a role in the far-reaching military apparatus. At least at the start, he will be little more than a figurehead.

That's where Jang comes in. The anointed caretaker was promoted this June to vice chairman of the National Defense Commission--which controls the military--making him the second most-powerful man in the country. "The National Defense Commission and the Workers' Party are the two most important, powerful governing organizations, in which only Jang is holding positions that can exercise enough power and influence in both," explains Kim Kwangjin, a midranking North Korean defector. According to An Chan-il, a North Korean defector and head of the World Institute for North Korean Studies, Jang is only one of three confidants who speaks directly to the Dear Leader--the other two being Kim Jong-un and Jang's wife, Kim Kyonghui, who happens to be the Dear Leader's sister. In the last year, Jang and his wife have been the most frequent travel companions to the elder Kim; between January and June he accompanied Kim Jong-il on 44 of 77 inspection visits. He is also rumored to be the Dear Leader's best drinking buddy.

That's bad news for the West: most security analysts believe that Jang will carry on Kim's erratic policies of confrontation, repression, and economic mismanagement. "I would expect to see more of the same," says Andrei Lankov, a noted North Korea scholar. "There might be a minor relaxation, but no full-scale reform." As a pillar of the old guard, Jang must realize that any Chinese-style economic reform would mean the end for the top party apparatchiks, and for himself. But at least he's not Kim Jr., now heralded as the "brilliant comrade" in Pyongyang propaganda. Some analysts believe he was the brains behind the March attack on the South Korean ship Cheonan, killing 46 sailors.

That's not to say it will be business as usual.

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