Kim Jong-un’s ‘death’ risks bloody succession battle as uncle prepares to seize power
With rumours about Kim’s death continuing to swirl there had been talk of his sister, Kim Yo-jong, taking power in the Hermit Kingdom. But it has emerged that Kim Pyong-il – the half brother of previous leader Kim Jong-il – had recently returned to the secretive state after spending 30 years overseas as a diplomat.
It’s a fascinating development to see Kim Pyong-il re-emerge on the stage
Professor John Blaxland
And experts believe his reappearance could complicate the succession and potentially spark a power struggle at the top.
Pyong-il was considered a threat by his older brother so was sent abroad to serve as North Korea’s ambassador to Finland, Bulgaria, Hungary and Poland.
He is said to have been a popular figure in Pyongyang before his foreign posting and was known for throwing parties where people would chant his name.
The 65-year-old returned to Pyongyang last summer after retiring as a diplomat and, in a society built upon a cult of personality, is well-liked because of his resemblance to his father Kim Il-sung.
His apparent leadership rival Kim Yo-jong has taken an increasingly prominent position alongside her brother in recent years.
Observers fear Kim’s possible death could spark a brutal and potentially bloody conflict to establish his successor.
North Korea expert Professor John Blaxland said Pyong-il’s gender may make him the preferable choice.
He told ABC: “It’s a fascinating development to see Kim Pyong-il re-emerge on the stage.
“That certainly will complicate Kim Yo-jong’s apparent aspirations, but points to something that was expected: a reluctance of the establishment — military, security leaders and the Kim family — to depart from the patriarchal predisposition.”
Malcolm Davis of Australia’s Strategic Policy Institute said: “Kim Yo-jong is clearly likely to claim leadership but whether the North Korean factions will accept a female leader is uncertain.”
But North Korea expert Sean King said any leader must be a blood relative which puts Kim Yo-jong in pole position.
The 32-year-old is one of her brother’s closest aides, helped cultivate his image and playing a key role in Kim’s historic meetings with Donald Trump.
Mr King said: “She’s clearly being groomed for something. If Kim Pyong-il was the man for the job, he’d have likely got it previously.”
Kim is believed to have children but they are too young to rule.
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Kim has not been seen in public since April 11 and rumours of ill-health or death are rife.
Speculation includes reports of botched heart surgery, an injury during a missile test or a collapse while walking in the countryside.
Chinese journalist Shijian Xingzou said a “very solid source” told her the North Korean leader had died.
She has 15 million followers on Chinese social media site Weibo, and she is also the niece of one of the country’s foreign ministers.
But South Korean officials are stressing they have detected no unusual movements in North Korea.
Unification Minister Kim Yeon-chul, who oversees engagement with Pyongyang, said the government had the intelligence capabilities to say with confidence that there were no indications of anything unusual.
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