Government officials and academic North Korea watchers have received intelligence suggesting that Chang Sung Taek, a 62-year old who runs the totalitarian state’s secret police, is making key decisions while the “Dear Leader” convalesces.
They believe that Mr Kim is conscious and probably capable of walking, but that he remains weak after what appears to have been a sudden stroke suffered in the middle of August.
Despite the fact that Mr Kim has not formally named anyone to succeed him to the leadership of North Korea and its million-strong, nuclear-equipped army, the Government appears to be functioning normally for the time being with no obvious signs of instability.
“Chang Sung Taek is now in control and is leading North Korea,” said Choi Jin Wook, of the government-affiliated Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul. “Other important figures consulted him, even when Kim Jong Il was OK. He will keep Kim Jong Il’s policy line even if he dies.”
Apart from his family connection to Mr Kim, Mr Chang is a cosmopolitan among North Korean cadres whose career bounced back from the brink of disaster just two years ago.
According to South Korea’s ministry of unification, he was educated at an elite school in Pyongyang, and married Mr Kim’s younger sister, Kim Kyong Hui, after studying in Moscow for three years.
He rose through the hierarchy to become head of the most powerful bureau of the Korean Workers’ Party’s, the “organisation and guidance department”. His older brother was the army general responsible for the defence of the capital itself.
In 2002, two years after a historic summit meeting between North and South, he led a delegation of senior officials on an unprecedented tour of South Korean industrial sites.
The most senior North Korean defector to the South, the former chief ideologue, Hwang Jang Yop, spoke of him as a potential successor to Mr Kim after a coup, and said that he was especially close to Kim Jong Nam, the dictator’s eldest son.
Perhaps because of his growing influence, Mr Chang was abruptly purged in 2004, and sent into internal exile. He reappeared in 2006 and last year a new and powerful post was created for him: head of the Party’s “administrative department”, in charge of the courts, the prosecutors, and the police – including those responsible for internal spying.