The historic conference of the Korean Workers’ Party this week is Kim Jong-il’s coming-out party for his third son, Kim Jong-un, the heir apparent who is so enigmatic, the outside world isn’t even certain what he looks like.But in the shadows stands an even more obscure figure, a power player at the center of an uncertain struggle over who will hold the reins to the nuclear-armed Hermit Kingdom after the ailing Dear Leader.
It’s 64-year-old Jang Song-taek. Jang has over the last couple of years become Kim Jong-il’s right-hand man, groomed to be the regent for the younger Kim. At least at the start, the son Kim Jong-un will be little more than a figurehead.
Jang was promoted this June to vice chairman of the National Defense Commission—which controls the military—making him the second most-powerful man in the country.
According to An Chan-il, a North Korean defector and head of the World Institute for North Korean Studies, Jang is only one of three confidants who speaks directly to the Dear Leader—the other two being Kim Jong-un and Jang’s wife, Kim Kyonghui, who happens to be the Dear Leader’s sister.
Several generals are reportedly upset at Jang’s position, including Kim Jong-gak, head of the Korean People’s Army; O Kuk-ryol, vice chairman of the NDC; and Kim Yong-chun, minister of the People’s Armed Forces.
In his new defense post, Jang officially controls the internal security forces, including the secret police. Part of this portfolio includes customs and border patrols, which have recently been ramped up to forestall the growth of private markets and cross-border smugglers. But his reach extends much further. During the shaky period following Kim Jong-il’s stroke in August 2008, he was thought to have taken over everyday decision-making power. If all goes according to plan, he will now serve as the behind-the-scenes administrator to Kim Jong-un until the younger Kim can keep the party chiefs in line himself.