Influential aunt of N. Korea leader makes first public appearance in 6 years

Kyong-hui (in red circle) sitting near North Korean leader during Lunar New Year celebrations. (Twitter pic/Graphenes)

SEOUL: The influential aunt of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un made her first public appearance in six years, state media reported on Sunday, years after her husband was executed in a purge.

Kim Kyong-hui is the sister of former North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il and took a leading role during the first years of current leader Jong-un’s rule.

She had largely disappeared from public view since 2013, after Kim Jong-un ordered the execution of her husband, Jang Song-thaek, seen as the second most powerful man in the North at the time.

On Sunday, state media showed Kyong-hui sitting near Jong-un at a performance celebrating the Lunar New Year in Pyongyang.

“Many North Korea watchers had assumed that Kim Kyong-hui had gone into exile or even killed in the wake of her husband’s death, so to see her pop up by the leader’s side some six years later is certainly a surprise,” said Oliver Hotham, managing editor of NK News, a Seoul-based organisation that monitors North Korea.

Kyong-hui and her husband were once a power couple that formed a kind of regency in the political world of the North behind its young and mercurial leader, who succeeded his father in December 2011.

Kyong-hui’s reappearance in a position of prominence suggests she has retained or at least regained an influential position behind the scenes, Hotham said, noting that state media listed her after North Korea’s nominal No 2, Choe Ryong-hae.

“That she’s sitting right next to the leader and is listed second after Ryong-hae suggests she might have been granted a significant new position, potentially advising Jong-un on economic or political issues,” he said.

“It’s also a reminder of how weird and brutal North Korea is, after all, she’s sitting next to the man who ordered her husband’s execution.”

Jong-un is facing a year of sensitive international and domestic politics, as denuclearisation talks with the United States remain stalled and international sanctions restrict North Korea’s economy.