Kim Jong-un and his wife Ri Sol-ju at the Kumsusan palace in Pyongyang on Tuesday. (AP)
Seoul, Dec. 17 (Reuters): North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s aunt was absent from a state memorial ceremony today raising questions about her influence days after her husband, also a top state official, was executed.
The purging and execution of Jang Song-thaek on Friday was the biggest upheaval in years in North Korea, which has conducted three nuclear tests and this year raised the possibility of nuclear war with South Korea and the US.
Jang was married to Kim Kyong-hui, a daughter of state founder Kim Il-sung and sister of the country’s second leader, Kim Jong-il. She is an aunt of current leader Kim Jong-un, the third Kim to rule.
North Korea’s KCNA news agency said last week Jang had been executed for trying to seize power and for driving the economy “into an uncontrollable catastrophe”.
Today, his wife did not appear at a ceremony marking the second anniversary of the death of her brother, North Korea’s second leader, Kim Jong-il.
Together, she and Jang had been considered the “Pyongyang power couple”, the real force behind the North Korean leadership, before Jang was labelled a traitor and executed.
Kim Kyong-hui usually features prominently at important North Korean events alongside her nephew, the young new leader, Kim Jong -un, and other members of the North Korean elite.
State media did not say why she was absent from the commemoration at the Kumsusan Memorial Palace, in the capital, Pyongyang.
Political leaders, including Kim Jong-un and his wife, paid respects to the late Kim Jong-il, whose embalmed body lies in a glass coffin in the palace.
Kim Kyong-hui has been absent from such events in the past, stoking speculation that she was ill, only to reappear later.
Earlier in the day, the political and military elite publicly pledged their loyalty to Kim Jong-un at the memorial gathering, less than a week after the young leader ordered the execution of the powerful family ally, Jang.
The young Kim was the centre of attention at the gathering with state television showed him sitting centre stage beneath a big red mural of a flag emblazoned with a picture of his smiling father.
Kim, believed to be about 30, took over when his father died in December 2011.
Cheong Seong-jang, an analyst at the Sejong institute, a Seoul-based think tank, said by getting rid of his uncle, Jang, the young Kim had consolidated his position.
“By eliminating the only other faction, the power in North Korea is now fully concentrated on Kim Jong-un,” Cheong said.
Since taking over as leader, the young Kim has followed his father’s programme by ordering the North’s third nuclear test and successfully launching a long-range rocket in the face of increasingly tight UN sanctions.
Jang was the only leadership figure who may have posed any real threat to him.
While North Korea has purged many officials in its 65-year history, it is rare that anyone as powerful as Jang has been removed so publicly — suggesting a recognition of internal divisions and competing factions around Kim Jong -un.
The young Kim has removed most of Pyongyang’s old guard during his comparatively short rule, replacing ageing generals and cadres with figures closer to his age.
He has changed his Korean People’s Army (KPA) chief of staff four times. The job changed hands three times during his father’s 17 years in power.
Choe Ryong-hae, a party apparatchik who has been around the Kim family for decades but had kept out of the limelight until three years ago, now appears to be the most influential adviser to Kim Jong-un.
Yesterday, Choe addressed a gathering of soldiers outside the Kumsusan Memorial Palace, stressing the army’s unswerving loyalty to the young Kim.