SEOUL - One of the great mysteries about the North-South Korean confrontation is who's pulling the strings on North Korea's "Supreme Leader" Kim Jong Un. Among those believed to wield the most power: his aunt, Kim Kyong Hui.
The ascent of Kim Kyong Hui, younger sister of Jong Un's late father, Kim Jong Il, and daughter of "Great Leader" Kim Il Sung parallels the rise of South Korean President Park Geun Hye, daughter of Park Chung Hee, the former general who ruled South Korea with an iron fist for 18 years until his assassination by his intelligence chief in 1979.
"It looks like Kim Kyong Hui has power in the North," says Ha Tae Keung, a South Korean National Assembly member who runs a short-wave station that broadcasts regularly into North Korea. "She is deciding policy."
The phenomenon of two women at the top of the ruling structures of both Koreas would seem to conflict with the traditional role of men as the rulers of home, family, business, and government in a society dominated by Confucian traditions on both sides of the North-South line. No one doubts, though, that neither woman could have gotten where they are without their heritage as daughters of dictatorial rulers.
Kim Kyong Hui, 66, channels her power in part through her husband, Jang Song Thaek, 67, whom she met at Kim Il Sung University and dated against the wishes of her father. Like his wife, Jang was named a four-star general by Kim Jong Il in 2010. Together, they are widely believed to exercise the real power over Kim Jong Un in the campaign to convince his people that he's really in charge.
Jang exercises power as vice chairman of the national defense commission, through which Kim Jong Il held sway as chairman before his death in December 2011. Kim Kyong Hui's power lies in her membership on the politburo of the Workers' Party, whose influence is believed to have increased since Kim Jong Il's death.
Either way, this husband-wife duo is at or near the apex of the two pillars of the North Korean power structure, the party and the armed forces. Kim Jong Un is in titular command as first chairman of the national defense commission and first secretary of the party - titles that place him just beneath his late father, overseeing all from on high as "eternal chairman" of the former and "eternal general secretary" of the latter, while the spirit of grandfather Kim Il Sung towers above all as North Korea's "eternal president."
In the Byzantine struggle for control in Pyongyang, Kim Jong Un was indoctrinated in the last two or three years of his father's rule to depend on his aunt, who is said to be just as hard-edged and vindictive as her older brother ever was. As an industry official in the days of famine and starvation in the 1990s, she is believed to have approved the execution of bureaucrats held responsible for the disaster.
Kim Kyong Hui emerged publicly as a national figure after her brother's stroke in August 2008. It was to ensure the safe passage of power from father to chosen son that Kim Jong Il had her showing up with him and son Kim Jong Un on inspection visits and study tours. The significance of Aunt Kyong Hui and her husband, Jang Song Taek, became apparent when they were photographed together for the first time at some of these events.
A campus show-off and leader of a musical group when he first met his future wife, Jang has had numerous ups and downs during a long career in a range of party and government positions. At least twice he was believed to have been purged - a fate that may have been exaggerated since he surfaced again with his wife.
"Without Kim Kyong Hui, he could not survive," says Ha Tae-kyung. "His power depends on hers."
Between them, in recent months this power pair has had to orchestrate a purge of top members of the armed forces. All four career military figures who accompanied the hearse bearing Kim Jong Il's coffin at his funeral have been disappeared. The extraordinary rhetoric and the threats of nuclear war and abrogation of the 1953 Korean War armistice are widely believed to have been concocted by these two in order to head off discontent in the top ranks of the armed forces and suppress continual signs of threats to their own power.
They count on another figure who may not be all that popular among career military men - Choe Ryong Hae, director of the political department of the armed forces. Like Kim Kyong Hui and Jang Song Taek, Choe, 62, was named a four-star general in 2010 without having to rise through the ranks. The sense is that North Korea is controlled by a triumvirate that needs to divide and rule over a military structure that's split into factions.
A nagging question, though, is that of Kim Kyong Hui's health. She has been reported to have been ill in recent months, and analysts wonder if she is likely to pass away in the next few years.
Concerns about Kim Kyong Hui's health add to the sense of insecurity surrounding the figurehead whom they have to nurture as the front man for their own survival. At 29, Kim Jong Un is following his father's admonition to listen to his older sister, to work with her and her husband, to play factions against one another among party politicos and army generals, and to get rid of anyone showing the least sign of discontent, much less dissent.
Against this background, intelligence sources here say Kim Jong Un, when he travels, needs far greater security than did his father on his "guidance" visits to factories, farms and military units. A small convoy of armored personnel carriers, trucks, and jeeps filled with soldiers are said to accompany him wherever he goes.
"They know they have enemies," says an intelligence analyst here. "They're not taking any chances. The situation is very fragile."