Kcna / AFP - Getty Images
North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il, left, and right-hand man Jang Song Taek inspect Mt. Ryongak Recreation Grounds in Pyongyang in this undated photo from the official Korea Central News Agency.
Many things about North Korea are a mystery, but this much is clear: The country’s heir-apparent -- 27-year-old Kim Jong Un -- lacks the job experience to run a nuclear-armed nation of 23 million people. But his elevation to "great successor" was only part of a transfer of power that left other key allies of his father, Kim Jong Il, in key positions around him.
For many Korea watchers, the most likely power behind the young leader is his uncle, Jang Song Taek, 65. Jang, who married into power by tying the knot with Kim Jong Il’s sister, survived 30 years of political ups and downs before emerging as right-hand man to Kim Jong Il.
“My sense of Jang is that he is a really capable guy,” said Marcus Noland, an Asia expert and senior fellow for the Peterson Institute, a think tank in Washington, D.C. “He may have bad ideas or bad motives, but if you look at his career, it’s clear that he has some kind of capability.”
Kim Jong Un has spent most of his time in North Korea, but he did study for a few years in an international school in Switzerland in the mid-1990s. Since being identified as successor in 2009, Jong Un's status has been plumped up through public appearances with his father, receiving the rank of general and having military orders issued in his name.
"Kim Jong Il picked the apple that didn't fall far from the tree," said a senior U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity. "He didn't select a successor who he believed would radically depart from his vision for North Korea."
Jang has credentials as a political survivor, observers say. He’s been exiled from the inner circle of power at least twice. The first occurred when he sought to marry Kim Kyung Hee, the younger sister of Kim Jong Il, over the opposition of Kim Il Sung — the "great leader" who died in 1994; he also disappeared from sight from about 2003-2006, purged for allegedly creating factions and maneuvering to seize power, according to GlobalSecurity.org, a website for military policy research.
Ultimately, however, Jang married Kyung Hee and eventually was elevated to be vice chairman of the National Defense Commission, a position that second in power behind the country’s supreme leader, now Kim Jong Un. He is also director of the State Development Bank. Some South Korean scholars believe that he was de facto leader during Kim Jong Il’s illness.
“In a way (Jang’s) biography reminds me of Deng Xiaoping’s,” said Noland, referring to the Chinese leader who became the de facto head of state after suffering multiple purges. “They keep throwing him to the countryside and he keeps coming back."
Kns / AFP - Getty Images
North Korean leader Kim Jong Il's younger sister Kim Kyong Hee, left, attends the Conference of the Workers' Party of Korea in Pyongyang, in Sept. 2010. Kim Kyong Hee and her husband Jang Song Taek are considered influential players in the aftermath of Kim Jong Il''s death.
Jang's relationship with Kyung Hee, Kim Jong Il's only living full sibling, is important. Kim Jong Il also has one half-sister and two half-brothers, born to his father’s second wife. But when he took the reins from his father, he evidently regarded these younger relations as a threat and dispatched them to obscure diplomatic outposts.
Kyung Hee, 65, despite a reputation for bullying everyone -- including Kim Jong Il -- has been visibly at his side several years, holding key positions in the Communist Party and the government. In September 2010 she and her nephew Jong Un both were given the rank of general in the military, confirming their status in the inner circle.
Whether Jang will pursue the path of protector, puppet master or rival remains to be seen. In the totalitarian system that has survived nearly 60 years in North Korea, the official version has little to do with reality.
"A lot depends on whether the power centers of the regime coalesce around Kim Jong Un, or see this period of uncertainty as an opportunity to change the balance of power internally," a U.S. official told NBC on background. "Those are very tricky calculations to make in an authoritarian society like North Korea."
Besides Jang, there are other players who could pose a challenge to Jong Un’s rule, most notably in the military.
There are other wild cards, such as Kim Jong Il’s former secretary and live-in girlfriend in his last years — 47-year-old Kim Ok — who some refer to as North Korea’s “first lady.”
Jong Un’s half-brother, Kim Jong Nam, born to the second of Kim Jong Il's three wives, was assumed to be heir to the "dear leader" at one point, but lost favor when he was arrested in Japan traveling on a false passport while trying to go to Disneyland with his son. He has been watching events in his home country from Macau.
“It’s like watching a family crime syndicate, like the Sopranos,” said Noland. “It’s a combination of brutality and dysfunctionality.”
“The problem is for (outsiders) is that it would be very hard to distinguish between a North Korea that Jong Un is ruling or one where he is just reigning,” he said. “It may be a few years before we have a clear picture.”
Robert Windrem, NBC News investigative producer for special projects, contributed to this report.
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