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Kim Jong-un is playing the tough guy, but his stern aunt is pulling the strings

AS with most of Pyongyang's recent propaganda reels, the footage here shows Kim Jong-un in a typically belligerent pose.

Having been shown last week posing with a handgun, a video has been released depicting him supervising the launch of a plane that is then shot down deftly by anti-aircraft missiles.

However, while his image makers seek to portray the boyish leader as a tough guy with his finger on the nuclear trigger, it is thought to be his aunt and uncle who are pulling the strings behind the scenes.

Kim Kyong-hui and her husband, Jang Sung-taek, both 66, are the Pyongyang power couple who were chosen by Kim Jong-il before he died in 2011 to help consolidate the authority of his son.

Analysts believe it is no coincidence that the duo were seen last weekend sitting on either side of their nephew at a central committee session of the Workers' Party, where Mr Kim issued his latest defiant message to the world, pledging to maintain nuclear weapons as "the nation's life treasure".

Tensions

The speech presaged a week of escalating tensions on the peninsula as Mr Kim threatened the US and South Korea and moved his missile batteries into firing positions.

Last Friday, Britain and Russia were warned that the safety of the embassies could not be guaranteed "in the event of conflict from April 10", although yesterday both countries said they still had no plans to evacuate.

Miss Kim, a stern figure reminiscent of the Bond villain Rosa Klebb, is often the only female face in official photographs of ranks of generals and party chiefs. She is the director of the party's Orwellian-sounding Organisation and Guidance Department, its most eminent post.

Her husband, who was Kim Jong-il's closest confidant, is vice-chairman of the National Defence Commission and the regime's key liaison with China, whose support is the country's economic lifeline.

But as North Korea's "first family", the couple's most important role is to defend the dynasty by forging the young Kim's credentials as a powerful military figure, amid concerns that some of his generals do not trust him.

North Korea has been a family affair ever since its inception in 1948 under Kim Il-sung, who died in 1994 but remains its Eternal President. The young Kim, known as the Supreme Leader, is even modelling himself physically on his grandfather.

As the daughter of the country's first leader, sister of its second and aunt of its third, Miss Kim has been a key political figure for four decades. She disappeared from public view for six years after 2003, having apparently fallen from favour, but re-emerged more powerful than ever and was made a four-star general in 2010.

By the following year, she and her husband were seen regularly in photographs as part of the young Kim's entourage, a sure sign of their membership of the inner circle.

One picture showed the three riding down a supermarket escalator together, standing behind Kim Jong-il in what was one of his last public appearances before his death.

'The Escalator of Evil', as some Western pundits have jokingly described it, has now reportedly become a shrine for some North Koreans, who pay homage to the late leader there.

Oddly, when she is not helping her nephew to run the country, Miss Kim is also the fast-food queen of Pyongyang, owning the only burger restaurant in the city – although the menu offers "minced meat and bread" rather than use the American word "burger".

The restaurant has, by all accounts, been a huge hit among the capital's elite for whom such treats are reserved. Customers wash down the exotic delicacy with local beverages such as Pyongyang Cider and Kumgang Draft Beer.

Anger

With Miss Kim at its heart, Pyongyang has expressed anger about international sanctions on its nuclear programme and refers to joint military drills involving US and South Korean forces to justify its belligerence. With tensions mounting, the US has dispatched F22 stealth jets to the region to join the shared exercises.

The North Korean industrial park that was the last example of co-operation with the South ground closer to paralysis as nearly 100 South Korean workers headed home yesterday. Pyongyang has closed the border to the normal arrivals of fresh staff from the South. As the North's military stated that it had been authorised to attack the US, defence chiefs in Seoul said that its neighbour had transferred missiles and launchers with "considerable range" to the east coast. A launch from there would put targets in South Korea or Japan in range.

In an attempt to ease the situation, American officials have cut back on public statements about the crisis. But Jay Carney, US President Barack Obama's spokesman, said the White House would "not be surprised" if Pyongyang launched another missile as part of its pattern of provocations.

In the past, the North's threats were often seen as a bargaining chip to secure greater food aid or concessions in nuclear talks.

But the heated rhetoric and sabre-rattling of recent days appears to be aimed as much at a domestic audience as a global one. The third member of the troika guiding Mr Kim is Choe Ryong-hae, a party bureaucrat who he appointed head of the military after old-timers were purged.

The three are attempting to transform Mr Kim into a figurehead with a reputation as a military tactician capable of handing an international crisis. It could not be a higher stakes exercise in image manipulation. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent