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Kim Kyong-hui’s Health and the Fate of Jang Song-taek

By Nick Miller

The Korean Times reported on September 7th that Kim Jong-il’s sister, Kim Kyong-hui, was in ill health stemming from her past abuse of alcohol. Kim Kyong-hui serves as one of the guardians of Kim Jong-un along with her husband Jang Song-taek. After Kim Jong-il’s suffered a stroke in 2008 he had to look to his sister to help secure the Kim legacy and prevent a power vacuum from occurring after his death.  The Elder Kim elevated both Kim Kyong-hui and Kim Jong-un to the rank of General in the Korean’s People’s Army (KPA) at the Korean Worker’s Party (KWP) Congress in September 2010. This was done to help further secure a safe leadership transfer to his son and his chosen guardians if Kim’s health deteriorated any further.

Potential Power Struggle

As with most medical reports on North Korean leaders verification of these reports is difficult if not impossible. Baek Seung-joo, at the Korea Institute for Defense Analysis, said that without Kim Kyong-hui it would significantly impede Kim Jong-un’s ability to manage the elites, the other Kim relatives, or the military. Baek believed that Kim Jong-un would have to rely upon Choe Ryong-hae, who is a Vice-Marshall in the KPA and has strong family ties to the Kim family because he cannot trust his uncle, Jang Song-taek.

Whether there is a power struggling going on between Jang and Kim that remains to be confirmed as Kim needs Jang Song-taek’s guidance to handle agricultural reforms that are potentially being put into place and serve as Kim Jong-un’s herald as he did during Jang’s trip to China in August.

Toshimitsu Shigemura, a professor at Tokyo’s Waseda University, believed that Choe’s promotions to Vice-Marshall and Director of the General Political Bureau of the KPA despite never holding any military position is an indication that the WKP has been working to reign in the dominance of the military and regain their lost control over the decision making process.

The removal of Ri Yong Ho over the summer, a former hardliner for Kim Jong-il’s military-first policy, and his replacement with Choe, allows Kim Jong-un to secure further support for his goals without the elites that were put into power by his father to stop him from initiating economic reforms.  Kim jong-un needs the support of the military if he wants his regime to have any longevity and the market reforms China has been asking for have faced strong resistance by the military leaders like Ri Yong Ho.

The Potential Fallout over Kim Kyong-hui’s Death      

Ahn Chan-il, director of World North Korea Research Center, said that if Kim Kyong-hui does die this could undermine her husband’s ability to control reforms as he is only married to a Kim family member, but her death was not “critical variable” to Jang losing his influence over the other elites and Kim Jong-un.

Currently there is likely no other person as strong as Jang Song-taek within North Korean politics that Kim Jong-un could rely on for advice and assistance. Lee Cho-won, political science professor at Chang-Ang University, stated that Jang has a wide network of people and experience that Kim Jong-un needs to utilize in order to carry out reforms and solidify his legitimacy. Though whether Jang will be happy with continuing his No. 2 position and attempt to assert further control in the future remains unknown. It is likely that as Kim Jong-un is able to secure a strong enough power base under him that he will likely move away from his uncle’s guidance.

South Korea’s The Chosun Ilbo, reported in July that Jang Song-taek was in firm control over the North Korean political machine and successfully dismantled Kim Jong-il’s power structure. The article points to the fact that after Kim’s death in 2011 Jang successfully removed Ri Yong Ho and U Dong-cuk, Ri’s deputy director. Baek Seung-joo, commented that there was no reason for Kim Jong-un to remove the support system his father put into place after only seven months of ruling the country.

Jang has been seeking the removal of numerous rivals after his fall from grace in 2003. Some of Jang’s key rivals like- Ri Je-gang, deputy director of the WKP Organization and Guidance Department, died in a mysterious car accident in May 2010 and a few days later Jang was promoted. Ryu Kyong, one North Korea’s spy chiefs was accused of treason and purged in 2011.  Jang has been successful in promoting elites that would be loyal to him- Choe Ryong-hae, Ji Jae-ryong, North Korea’s ambassador to China; Ri Yong-su, head of the Party’s labor groups, because they have had strong relationship with Jang for decades.

While unnamed intelligence sources cited in the Chosun Ilbo article stated that the limit to Jang’s power was the health of his wife and once she passes on Jang’s ability to control elite politics will be over.  Whether Choe will stay loyal to Jang or side with Kim Jong-un is not known. The most likely scenario is that Jang will continue to assert firm control over his supporters and prevent Kim Jong-un from securing a power base of his own, so that after his wife’s death he will still be in control. Jang’s ability to survive should be not be understated as he has withstood a purge in the 1970s and more recently in early 2000. As he continues to remove more rivals and install his own supporters his seat of control over North Korean politics will remain strong and could likely cast a long shadow over Kim Jong-un for many years.

Photo from Tormod Sandtorv’s photo stream on flickr Creative Commons.

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One Response to “Kim Kyong-hui’s Health and the Fate of Jang Song-taek”


  1. […] his analytics toward addressing what it might mean if Kim Kyong-hui were to die, in an essay at Korea Economic Institute of America entitled “Kim Kyong-hui’s Health and the Fate of Jang Song-taek.”  Here, […]

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