REPORTING FROM SEOUL -- Pyongyang's seat of power is the Kremlin of the post Cold War era. Its often mischievous doings conducted behind closed doors, leaving the outside world to mere guess and conjecture.
That’s no small feat in a time of drones, satellites spying, sophisticated surveillance and with the planet’s most wired nation, South Korea, sitting right at its doorstep.
In the aftermath of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il’s death, regime-watchers are left to grasp at clues about the machinations of change as Kim’s hand-picked successor and youngest son, Kim Jong Un, shores up his support among the military and begins the Kim family’s third generation of power.
On Sunday, North Korean state-run television aired footage of the insider who is expected to guide the youngest Kim in the first and most fragile period of his reign. Jang Song Taek, Kim Jong Un’s uncle and husband of the late dictator's younger sister, Kim Kyong Hui, was shown wearing a military uniform with a general’s insignia, hinting at what many assume to be his emerging role as a go-between with the nation’s powerful military generals.
FOR THE RECORD:
An earlier version of this story said that Kim Kyong Hui was Kim Jong Il's daughter. She is his younger sister.
The solemn-faced Jang was paying his respects to Kim Jong Il, whose body lies in state at Pyongyang’s Kumsusan Memorial Palace prior to a lavish government funeral on Wednesday.
The appearance marks the first time that Jang, usually dressed in business suits, was seen in public in military uniform, according to officials from Seoul’s Unification Ministry.
As internal leadership developments progressed in Pyongyang, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda arrived in Beijing on Sunday to hold talks with top Chinese officials on how to ensure stability in North Korea during the leadership change.
“I would like to exchange views and information in detail so as to avert a harmful effect on peace and stability on the Korean peninsula,” Noda told reports before leaving Tokyo.
On the gray, nearly deserted streets of Pyongyang, there have been other subtle signs of a new era of leadership. State media has encouraged citizens to begin referring to Kim Jong Un with the new title of “supreme leader of the revolutionary armed forces” as he has begun making appearances out of the shadow of his late father.
With neither the U.S. nor South Korea having an embassy in North Korea, experts are left to speculate on the makeup of Pyongyang’s new inner-circle of power, but Jang and his wife are most certain to become critical players in both the short and long-run, many say.
Kim Kyong Hui is already a high-ranking Workers’ Party official and Jang is a vice chairman of the powerful national Defense Commission. South Korean intelligence experts predict that new key posts will soon become bestowed on the pair.
Both are 65, more than twice the age of the new North Korean leader, who many suspect is 28. In a Confucian culture in which age demands respect, many say the two will lend credibility to the young Kim, who looks boyish in his closely-shorn haircut.
Within the North Korean leadership, titles – many sounding almost cartoonish in their loftiness and scope – are singular clues to a political player’s rising importance.
Kim Il Sung, who founded the nation in 1948 and died in 1994, retains the title of “eternal president.” His son, Kim Jong Il, wore many titles, including “Chairman of the National Defense Commission,” “Supreme Commander of the Korean People’s Army” and “General Secretary of the Workers’ Party.”
Shortly after he was named to succeed his father last year, Kim Jong Un was promoted to four-star general and named a “vice chairman of the Central Military Commission of the Workers’ Party.”
In viewing his father’s body, Kim has been accompanied by top members of North Korea’s military leadership, another sign that generals, at least for now, are embracing the new ruler.
State-run media has also made historical references to the youngest Kim’s rise, pointing out Saturday that his rise to “supreme commander” comes on the 20th anniversary of his father’s appointment to the same post.
The state-controlled newspaper Rodong Sinmun urged Kim to accept the military post. “Comrade Kim Jong Un, please assume the supreme commandership, as wished by the people,” it said.
The Korean Central News Agency has also reported that the nation’s military has pledged it support of Kim.
“Let the whole army remain true to the leadership of Kim Jong Un over the army,” the news service said it its report.
-- John M. Glionna
Photo: Kim Jong Un, center, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il's youngest known son and successor, visits Kumsusan Memorial Palace in Pyongyang on Dec. 24, to pay respect to his father. At far left front is Kim Jong Un's uncle Jang Song Thaek. Credit: Associated Press