SEOUL – North Korean leader Kim Jong Il’s three sons are not the only ones with strong enough family connections to make them contenders for power as their father, weak and still ailing, casts about for a successor.
While Mr. Kim may hope to groom one of his sons to succeed him, he seems to be counting right now on the economic acumen of his brother-in-law, Jang Song Taek, to buttress his regime. In one of his first gestures after the Supreme People’s Assembly elected him unanimously to a third five-year term as chairman of the National Defense Commission, the center of power in North Korea, Kim made Mr. Jang a commission member.
North Korea's launch of a long-range Taepodong-2 missile on Sunday set the stage for the assembly to rubberstamp Kim’s third term Thursday. Then, on Friday, came word of the reshuffle, seen as a sign of Kim’s desire to impose greater control over the armed forces.
The defense commission grew from eight to 13 members with the addition of two people rewarded for their role in the missile launch. “Overall,” a spokesman for South Korea’s unification ministry told reporters in Seoul, “the power of the defense commission was strengthened.”
Japan renewed and strengthened economic sanctions already imposed on North Korea for its failure to account fully for abduction of Japanese citizens in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Japan also called for a tough UN resolution punishing the North for the missile test, while the US appeared ready to settle for a statement from the Security Council president.
Against this background, Kim Jong Il apparently decided the timing was right for enhancing his regime.
Jang’s appointment to the defense commission gives him a formal power base commensurate with the increased influence he’s had of late. Jang, married to Kim’s sister, Kim Kyong Hi, has been photographed 24 times this year accompanying Kim on visits to military units and factories. That figure compares with 14 last year and four the year before.
Jang’s star has risen since Kim was reported to have suffered a stroke in August, but Kim waited until his own appearance at the opening session of the Supreme People’s Assembly to elevate him formally. Jang already is a senior official in the Workers’ Party and also controls the powerful State Security Agency, responsible for the pervasive system of internal espionage that has snared tens of thousands of North Korean citizens suspected of disloyalty in some way to Kim’s rule.
The move confirms Jang’s standing as the second most powerful man in North Korea with far more clout than the nominal head of state, Kim Yong Nam. The question now is whether he will want eventually to take over from Kim Jong Il, or will settle for the role of mentor and power-behind-the-throne of one of Kim’s sons, probably the youngest.
Yonhap, South Korea’s news agency, suggested that Jang “may play a caretaking role for Kim’s successor.”
None of Kim’s three sons, however, was named to the commission, and the steps for training any of them for top leadership remain unclear. Although speculation focuses on the youngest, Kim Jong Un, said Yonhap, “Seoul intelligence officials say there is no hard evidence to prove it.”