Absence of Kim's aunt may not impact North Korea leadership

The anticipated absence of Kim Kyong-hui, the aunt of North Korean ruler Kim Jong-un, is unlikely to impact the fledgling leadership in Pyongyang, given his stable grip on power, analysts said Monday.

The failing health of Kim, one of the most influential mentors to the inexperienced leader, has raised concerns over the stability of the regime.

"Should his aunt die or fail to function, there may be a psychological impact on the leadership to a certain extent, as the leader still lacks experience in the management of state affairs," said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies.

"But the leader has almost completed the crucial process of consolidating his power, and I don't see any prospect of instability due to the absence of his only aunt Kyong-hui."

Rumors have spread that Kim, the younger sister of late North Korean strongman Kim Jong-il, is in critical condition, suffering from various illnesses including cancer, dementia and heart disease.

Some media reports said that Kim has been in a vegetative state after undergoing brain surgery in France last year. Others speculated that she is suffering from an emotional breakdown following the execution of her husband Jang Song-thaek last month.

Seoul intelligence officials dismissed all rumors as "groundless," but have been closely watching developments as to the fate of the leader's core relative.

After the death of her brother Kim Jong-il in December 2011, Kim Kyong-hui has been one of the most trusted guardians for the young North Korean leader, who was thrown into the top post after only several years of grooming.

As chief of light industries in the reclusive state, the leader's aunt wielded great influence in the North's economy and politics. Thus, many anticipate some kind of a power vacuum, although one that may not seriously influence the ruler's leadership.

Observers say the ruler's younger sister Kim Yo-jong could fill the vacuum left by their sick aunt.

"As now, Kim Kyoung-hui cannot actively carry out her responsibilities as a light industry chief and top official of the ruling Workers' Party, the role of Kim Yo-jong is expected to increase for activities such as social, women-related ones that the ruler can't directly engage in," said Kim Yong-hyun, North Korea expert at Dongguk University.

Pyongyang is to hold elections for the delegates of the Supreme People's Assembly, the country's rubber stamp legislature, in March. The elections are expected to give a clue as to whether Kim Yo-jong would take center stage in the political arena in place of her aunt.

Since September, Kim Kyong-hui has not been in the public eye.

Last September, she attended a military parade to mark the 65th anniversary of the foundation of the North Korean regime and a military musical performance with the first couple. Since then, she has not appeared in the North Korean media.

She was expected to appear at the memorial ceremony to mark the second anniversary of the death of former leader Kim Jong-il, but did not show, further fueling speculations a bout her failing health.

Observers say Kim Kyong-hui may be still alive, as the North usually holds a massive state funeral soon after any high-profile member of the Kim dynasty passes away.