Both Koreas Are Ruled by Women

Behind Kim Jong Un, his aunt pulls the levers.
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Kim Kyong Hui, younger sister of former North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, stands with other officials in October 2010. (KCNA)

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.

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Donald Kirk is an author and journalist who has been reporting from Asia for more than 40 years.

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