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The power brokers behind North Korea's next leader

By Matthew Pennington

Associated Press

Published: Tuesday, Dec. 20 2011 8:50 a.m. MST

In this image made from AP video, Kim Jong Un, centre, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il's youngest known son and successor, visits the body of the senior Kim with top military and Workers' Party officials in a memorial palace in Pyongyang, North Korea, Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2011. Indicating the leadership transition in the world's only communist dynasty is on track, Kim Jong Un visited the body with top military and Workers' Party officials and held what state media called a "solemn ceremony" in the capital, Pyongyang, as the country mourned. (AP Photo) TV OUT

The Associated Press

North Korea's young and inexperienced next leader will lean on a seasoned inner circle headed by his aunt and uncle to guide him through the transition to supreme ruler.

Kim Jong Un, who vaulted into the leadership role with the death of his father, Kim Jong Il, made his public debut as anointed successor only 15 months ago. Since then, the whirlwind political campaign has barreled ahead — but perhaps not fast enough to mask the air of uncertainty felt in the streets of Pyongyang, the North Korean capital.

The late Kim Jong Il had 20 years of preparation at the side of his father, North Korean founder Kim Il Sung, who died in 1994. Experts say that because Kim Jong Un doesn't have that kind of experience, the youngest member of the political dynasty will need the brains and political brawn of his father's closest confidants before formally taking power.

"Kim Jong Il was in a frantic race against time," said Jonathan Pollack, a North Korea expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington, "and he lost."

Analysts say two close, trusted family members and political power brokers have emerged as Kim Jong Un's main protectors: paternal aunt Kim Kyong Hui and her husband, Jang Song Thaek, who have risen to the top of North Korea's political and military elite since the succession campaign began two years ago.

Both 65, they also have the weight of seniority so important in a society that places a premium on age and alliances.

A last photograph of Kim Jong Il released Saturday by the official Korean Central News Agency shows just how important the aunt and uncle are to Kim Jong Un. In it, Kim Jong Il is descending on an escalator at a Pyongyang supermarket while behind him stand a group that includes his sister, Kim Kyong Hui, and her husband, Jang Song Thaek, standing on steps below and above their nephew, the heir.

Making his first public appearance Tuesday following his father's death, Kim Jong Un strode up and bowed deeply before the bier in a memorial palace, the picture of vigor and filial piety. Lined up alongside members of the elder Kim's inner circle, he was the youthful exception among officials in their 60s, 70s and 80s who were his father's closest confidants.

Kim, whose age has never been revealed in North Korea, is 27 years old, according to a U.S. official in Washington. Among Kim Jong Il's three sons, he is most like his father in manner and personality.

"Kim Jong Il picked the apple that didn't fall far from the tree," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity in exchange for the details. "He didn't select a successor who he believed would radically depart from his vision for North Korea."

When Kim Jong Un will formally assume power remains unclear.

Official mourning periods can last for months or even years in North Korea. Kim Jong Il observed a three-year period of mourning after the death of his father before formally assuming leadership, said John Delury, an assistant professor at Yonsei University's Graduate School of International Studies in South Korea.

He said Kim Jong Un may take a back seat to a group of regents during an extended mourning period.

"The question will be: If he does — again in accordance with traditional mourning and his young age — take a little bit of a back seat, even for a couple years as he establishes himself, then it's going to be very difficult to figure out what's the balance of control between Kim Jong Un and these other more senior, more experienced figures."

John Park of the U.S. Institute for Peace calls the aunt and uncle "key pillars" for Kim as he looks to establish his leadership. But he questions whether their power — derived from their personal association with Kim Jong Il — will endure now that he's gone.

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