Uncle Jang emerges as real power in North Korea

Late leader's brother-in-law will guide the 'Great Successor'

North Korea's anointed "Great Successor" Kim Jong-un will have to rule from under the thumb of an uncle widely regarded as "the regent" who is both coaching him on how to govern, and telling him what to do.

That is the view of South Korean analysts as Kim Jong-il lies in a glass coffin in Pyongyang and weeping mourners file by for a last glimpse of the man who ruled North Korea for 17 years before dying last Saturday.

Behind the scenes of mourning, a backstage plan to ensure a smooth transition of power has thrust Jang Song-thaek into the spotlight. The brother-in-law of the former leader is thought to wield the most power in the new North Korean administration and is joined by his wife Kim Kyong-hui, and the highest ranking military commander, General Ri Young-ho in the country's most powerful decision-making group.

Ha Tae-keung, director of a small short-wave radio station that broadcasts news into North Korea for two hours a day, believes Jang exercises the most power of all of those now scheming for influence in this time of transition.

"It's not a junta," Mr Ha said. "One person has the most power, and that's Jang."

Kim Jong-un, his father's third son, appears to be the unquestioned heir to the appearance of power but clearly will be following Jang's advice before attempting to assert his own authority. Analysts in Seoul question however, whether Jang can remain so powerful without the patronage of Kim Jong-il. In the last photograph ever taken of Kim Jong-il, Jang is seen behind him and Kim Jong-un going down an escalator in a new luxury market.

However, Jang spent three years out of public view, from 2003 to 2006, after appearing overly ambitious as a party organiser responsible, among other things, for having drawn tens of thousands of the party faithful into the capital of Pyongyang from homes and posts elsewhere. Of key importance is how quickly the new leader can learn.

Over the last 18 months his father led him on numerous trips of military installations, factories and farms in a desperate effort to teach him how to govern. Kim Jong-un now holds top posts in the party, the government and the military establishment but, still in his late 20s, has never had actual responsibility in a real job.

Shim Jae-hoon, a political analyst, questions the new leader's credentials. Kim Jong-un is "very much untested quantity. He's too young for job," he said. The principal value of Kim Jong-un, for now, said Shim, is that he "symbolises the house of Kim" – that is, Kim Il-sung, the "Great Leader" who ruled with an iron fist for nearly 50 years before passing on power to his son, Kim Jong-il, and dying in 1994.

Ahead of Kim Jong-il's funeral next week, North Korea was sealing its northern border with China. Conscious that most of its military will be in the capital, and that the Chinese border is an area favoured by would-be deserters, the North Koreans have locked down border crossings, stymieing trade and communications.

In South Korea there was embarrassment for the intelligence agencies yesterday when officials faced a barrage of criticism over not knowing of Kim Jong-il's death before North Korea's state media announced it on Monday, 50 hours after he died.

After stumbling under questioning from members of the National Assembly, officials were humiliated by a report yesterday that the Chinese may have known about Kim's death within hours after he reportedly collapsed and died on a train.

JoongAng Ilbo, a leading South Korean newspaper, quoted Chinese sources saying China's ambassador to North Korea told his government of Kim's death on the same day.

South Korea's foreign ministry had insisted that China did not get word well in advance, but the sense remains that South Korea's intelligence service is playing catch-up on an event it should have known about first.

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