Kim Kyung Hee, Chosun People’s Army general, Workers’ Party secretary and younger sister of Kim Jong Il, has not appeared in public for around 80 days. Kim was last seen at an event with Kim Jong Eun on May 12th. This has led to numerous theories, all unsubstantiated, about her health. It is even claimed by some that she died in Japan last week.
Although any link to Kim’s health is unproven, her absence from Kumsusan Palace of the Sun on July 8th, where Kim Jong Eun and other leaders went to pay their respects before Kim’s embalmed father, Kim Il Sung, on the 19th anniversary of his passing, does lend weight to speculation about her wellbeing. The event is a crucial milestone in the familial legacy politics of the Kim regime, and one Kim should not have missed.
The longer Kim spends out of the public eye, meanwhile, the greater the speculation becomes that she is in a critical condition, or has already passed away. However, to reiterate: one must be cautious. This is not the first time that Kim’s health has been speculated upon, and on past occasions it has been revealed as inaccurate guesswork. Even the South Korean intelligence authorities admit, “We have no definite information on Kim.”
Nevertheless, it is asserted with great confidence that Kim suffers bouts of depression, and was an alcoholic in recent memory as a result of difficulties between her and husband Jang Sung Taek, another regime heavyweight. It is also said that she suffers from heart disease. She is not young, of course: she was born in 1946 and turned 67 on May 30th this year. Her failure to appear in public, in particular in active situations, does not inspire confidence.
Of most interest to the international community is the effect Kim’s absence or possible incapacitation could have on the stability of the North Korean power structure. Along with Jang, Kim is believed to be one of the principal guardians overseeing the development of the Kim Jong Eun regime. Accordingly, her absence is capable of inciting a power struggle, one that would only worsen if Jang Sung Taek’s power faded due to the loss of his wife, the matriarch of the Kim family.
In April 2010, just months before his death, former Workers’ Party Secretary Hwang Jang Yop told a Japanese reporter that Kim and Jang would act as support for the successor. Therefore, Hwang dismissed the possibility of confusion following the death of Kim Jong Il. Hwang believed that Kim’s bloodline and Jang’s statecraft would assure systemic continuity.
However, Kim’s travails could change that. Lee Seung Ryul, a researcher with Ewha Institute of Unification Studies told Daily NK, “Kim Kyung Hee’s absence means that the revolutionary legitimacy of the family of Kim Il Sung, which sustains Kim Jong Eun, is getting weaker. This is not good for Kim Jong Eun, who has been unable to establish a lone ruling system.”
Lee added, “Jang Sung Taek’s guardianship was partly a reflection of Kim Kyung Hee’s power. As a result of this, the connecting ties between Kim Jong Eun and Jang Sung Taek could weaken. Jang, who knows the nature of power in North Korea better than anybody else, will have to cooperate with Kim Jong Eun for the time being. However, he ought to be worried about his own future.”
Professor Jo Young Gi from Korea University agreed, saying, “Jang Sung Taek was under Kim Kyung Hee’s protection, and [her absence] is bound to narrow the scope of his actions. Jang and Kim were regents to Kim Jong Eun, but this too will disappear.”
Professor Jo added by way of conclusion that Jang’s choices at this time must be carefully observed. “If one can claim he served diligently during the Kim Jong Il era,” he mused, “then there is a good chance he will make an alternate choice during the Kim Jong Eun era.”