- 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.

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 the young Mr. 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.

“Jang is clearly someone whose major task on behalf of the Kim family is to guide and shepherd Kim Jong-un and to insulate and protect him … to help him ward off assaults on the authority of the family,” said Stephen Bosworth, former U.S. special envoy for North Korea.

Kim Jong-il played rival groups off one another, but everyone knew his or her position relied on him. “The key question is whether Kim Jong-un can achieve that, even in coordination with his regent aunt and uncle,” Mr. Bosworth said.

An important factor in his favor is that communist North Korea has known rule only by the Kims, and military and party leaders likely view a successful transition as key to their survival.

“The North Korean regime is in a classic, ‘we all hang together or we all hang separately’ kind of mode,” Mr. Bosworth said. “There’s a great imperative for cohesion.”

Here is a look at key members of the inner circle in North Korea:

Kim Kyong-hui

Mrs. Kim is the late leader’s younger sister. She kept a low profile for decades until 2009, when she began appearing with her brother during “on-the-spot guidance” trips nationwide.

Now considered a top political official who has shot up in the ranks in two years, she is expected to play a caretaker role with her nephew.

She serves as director of the light-industry department of the ruling Workers’ Party’s Central Committee, a position that has gained significance since North Korea made the industry sector a priority in 2009.

She also was appointed to the Political Bureau last year and, like her nephew, was made a general in the Korean People’s Army.

Mrs. Kim is said to have a fiery temperament but suffers from ill health, according to North Korea observers based in Seoul.

Jang Song-thaek

Kim Kyong-hui’s husband is a Soviet-trained technocrat who was a rising star until he was demoted in early 2004, seen as a warning from his brother-in-law against cultivating too much influence.

Mr. Jang was brought back into the fold in 2006, and he has been gaining influence since then.

He heads the party’s administrative department and, more important, oversees the intelligence agency and other military-related institutions, according to the Sejong Research Institute, a security think tank in South Korea.

In June 2009, he was made a vice chairman of the powerful National Defense Commission and is an alternate member of the Political Bureau.

He has strong ties to the military, with two brothers having served in high-level military posts, according to analysts.

Other key members:

• Kim Yong-nam, president of the Presidium of North Korea’s parliament, often represents the country and is considered a nominal head of state. He is a member of the party’s Central Committee.

• Ri Yong-ho, vice marshal and chief of the General Staff of the Korean People’s Army, was promoted to vice chairman of the party’s Central Military Commission last year and is a member of the Presidium of the Political Bureau.

Mr. Ri was close to Kim Jong-il and is said to have strong ties with Mr. Jang.

• Choe Yong-rim was promoted to premier last year. His family is said to have long-standing ties with the Kim family.

His daughter, Choe Son-hui, is a department director at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Concerns about the post-Kim Jong-il era began mounting in 2008, when he disappeared from the public eye after suffering a stroke. North Korea began closing ranks in 2009 during the early stages of a movement to begin installing a successor.

The party’s Political Bureau, which had atrophied during much of Kim Jong-il’s “military first” rule, was restocked with loyal, mostly older cadres in 2010. The emphasis on the Kim family’s lineage and legitimacy to lead North Korea was promoted by state media.

In taking the dynasty into a third generation, Kim Jong-un faces the challenge of convincing his people and the outside world that he has the clout and connections to make up for his youth and inexperience.

He will be dealing with poverty, hunger, isolation and questions about the military’s support, but “he has no profile in the party, no profile in the military,” said Victor Cha, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Things could really come apart.”

“The question is whether these deeply personalized associations of Kim Jong-il persist with the young general,” Mr. Pollack said.

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