Asia Pacific

Kim Jong Un’s aunt makes surprise appearance six years after husband’s execution

by Jesse Johnson

Staff Writer

The once-influential aunt of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un made her first public appearance in more than six years, state media showed Sunday, dispelling rumors that she had been killed or taken her own life after the execution of her powerful husband, Kim’s onetime No. 2.

Kim Kyong Hui attended a concert with the North Korean leader, his wife and other officials to mark the Lunar New Year holiday Saturday at the Samjiyon Theater in Pyongyang, the North’s official Korean Central News Agency reported.

Kim Kyong Hui is the only daughter of North Korea’s founder, Kim Il Sung, and the widow of Kim Jong Un’s uncle and former right-hand man, Jang Song Thaek. The KCNA report published a picture of the aunt, bespectacled and wearing a black Korean traditional hanbok, sitting next to Kim Jong Un’s wife, Ri Sol Ju.

It listed Kim Kyong Hui’s name next to the North’s No 2, Choe Ryong Hae.

Jang — once considered a de facto regent for Kim Jong Un after the sudden death of his father, Kim Jong Il, in late 2011 — was executed in December 2013 for treason in a stunning fall from grace.

Kim Kyong Hui had not been seen in public since, leading to speculation that she, too, had been purged. A May 2015 report by CNN, quoting a North Korean defector, even said that she had been poisoned on orders from Kim Jong Un.

But less than a year later, past images of her reappeared in state media, suggesting that she had not been purged. The following year, South Korea’s spy agency, the National Intelligence Service, told parliament that she was receiving medical treatment for diabetes and other illnesses outside Pyongyang.

South Korea’s Unification Ministry said last April that she had apparently been elected to the North’s rubber-stamp parliament.

It’s unclear what her return to public view means, but North Korea has undergone a major reshuffle of its leadership in recent weeks, removing its top diplomat and defense chief in a shift that — combined with a major policy speech by leader Kim Jong Un — could significantly impact the country’s diplomatic stance after 18 months of nuclear talks with the U.S.

The North officially confirmed it had named a sharp-tongued former army officer with little foreign policy experience as its top diplomat on Friday. And on Wednesday it said that an official who has overseen leader Kim Jong Un’s pet construction projects has been named the nuclear-armed country’s new defense minister.

Speculation had swirled over the promotions after the North said that it had carried out a major leadership reshuffle during a four-day plenary session of the ruling party’s Central Committee late last year.

Kim Jong Un expressed deep frustrations in his key policy speech last month over the stalled nuclear negotiations with Washington and vowed to bolster his nuclear arsenal as a deterrent against “gangster-like” U.S. sanctions and pressure.

He also declared that his country is no longer bound by its self-imposed moratorium on nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile tests, while also warning of a “new strategic weapon” that he vowed to soon reveal to the world.

White House national security adviser Robert O’Brien said in an interview earlier this month that the United States has attempted to contact North Korea in a bid to restart deadlocked nuclear talks. But senior North Korean officials have warned that the country will return to talks only when Washington fully accepts its opaque demands.

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