- Associated Press - Thursday, December 22, 2011

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 just 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.

Kim Jong-il had 20 years of preparation at the side of his father, North Korean founder Kim Il-sung, who died in 1994. Analysts 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, and he lost,” said Jonathan Pollack, a North Korea analyst at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

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, and behind him is a group that includes the aunt and uncle, who are his sister and brother-in-law, standing on steps below and above their nephew, the heir.

Making his first public appearance following his father’s death, Kim Jong-un on Tuesday strode up and bowed deeply before the bier in a memorial palace, the picture of vigor and filial piety.

Standing alongside members of the elder Mr. 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 Jong-un, 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 the 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.

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