Kim Jong Un, designated last year to lead the North Korean family dynasty in its third generation, may be heavily influenced by an aunt and uncle, analysts said.
In recent years, as his health failed, longtime North Korea leader Kim Jong Il moved to cement the authority of his sister and brother-in-law as he prepared to anoint the youngest of his three sons, Kim Jong Un, still in his 20s, as the country's new leader.
Kim Jong Il was close to his younger sister, Kim Kyong Hui. Described as having a fiery and energetic temperament, she has spent years in the ruling Workers' Party. The sister was increasingly seen in public with Kim after his stroke in 2008.
"Kim Jong Il is very proud of her. She is a very attractive person to the North Koreans, as well. She is like a strong man with a strong character," Jang Sung-min, a former South Korean lawmaker who wrote a book on the North Korean leader, told The Times in 2010.
"North Korea is a Confucian country and people were concerned Kim Jong Un was too young. They need to have the older face of Kim Kyong Hui next to his," Brent Choi, a longtime North Korea analyst, said in an interview with The Times last year.
The uncle, Jang Song Taek, has had a long history with the levers of power in the North Korean government, fueled by luck, family connections and political acumen.
He has overseen the military and secret police and public labor and more recently has pushed to establish economic zones with China.
"He has always been a pure bureaucrat, an economic management specialist," Andrei Lankov, a political scientist at Seoul's Kookmin University who specializes in North Korean history, said in 2009. "Today he's running a railway and tomorrow he's torturing political dissenters."
Jang Song Taek met Kim's sister while both were students at Kim Il Sung University. "Jang was charming and handsome. He played the accordion, harmonica and guitar. She fell in love with him," according to Jang Sung-min, the South Korean author of the book "War and Peace: Where Is North Korea Headed After Kim Jong Il?"
But Kim Il Sung disapproved of his daughter's relationship and had Jang moved to another university.
According to a story in the South Korean JoongAng Ilbo newspaper, Kim Kyong Hui drove her Mercedes two hours to meet with Jang. The two were later married. Both were 26.
Now part of the Kim clan, Jang wielded clout within the regime, especially after Kim Jong Il replaced his late father in 1994. Jang's influence lasted several years before he was suddenly placed under house arrest in 2004 and mysteriously purged from the party power structure.
Jang had reportedly become enemies with the leader's second wife, Ko Young Hee, who believed Jang was scheming for power.
Others say Kim was threatened by Jang and banished him to pacify political elites in the capital. Ultimately, Kim's sister played a decisive role bringing her husband back to power 18 months later.
Jang soon repaired his reputation within the party. But the family endured tragedy when the couple's only daughter, Geum Song, committed suicide in Paris in 2006. Analysts say she had wanted to marry a foreigner against her parents' will.
Jang was believed to have good relations with all three of Kim's sons, and oversaw their educations. He was believed to back the youngest son as Kim's successor.
By 2009, the ailing leader publicly anointed Jang as his second in charge, and named him to the powerful National Defense Commission. Some speculated that the uncle would merely be the regime's caretaker, ensuring an orderly succession of power to Kim's son. Some wondered if Jang would try to assume power for himself.
--- Rong-Gong Lin II in Los Angeles with John M. Glionna in Seoul and Barbara Demick in Beijing
Left photo: Jang Song Taek, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il's brother-in-law, leaves Beijing airport for home in this photo dated March 28, 2006. Credit: Associated Press / Kyodo News
Right photo: Kim Kyong Hui at the ruling Workers' Party representatives meeting in Pyongyang, North Korea, on Sept. 28, 2010, where she retained her position as department director on the Central Committee and gained a new post as a member of the committee's Political Bureau. Credit: Associated Press /Korean Central News Agency via Korea News Service
Bottom photo: Kim Jong Un on Tuesday visits the body of his father, Kim Jong Il, in Pyongyang. Credit: Associated Press