The aunt of Kim Jong-un, Kim Kyong-hui, has appeared in public for the first time in more than six years, ending speculation that she had been purged or executed.
The official newspaper of North Korea’s ruling party, the Rodong Sinmun, showed Kim Kyong-hui seated next to Kim and his wife, Ri Sol-ju, at a performance to mark the lunar new year at a theatre in Pyongyang on Saturday.
Rumors that Kim Kyong-hui had been sidelined, or possibly executed, gained traction after her influential husband, Jang Song-thaek, was executed by firing squad for treason and corruption in December 2013. She has not been present at ceremonies since then and her name has not been mentioned in KCNA dispatches until Sunday.
Some observers believed she had become a victim of a series of purges her nephew ordered in an attempt to rid the ruling party of potential rivals. Others speculated that 73-year-old Kim Kyong-hui, a heavy drinker, had died due to ill health.
While she is unlikely to regain formal positions of political influence, her presence is hugely symbolic, according to Michael Madden, a North Korea leadership expert at the Stimson Center in Washington. “The sudden appearance of major officials in a regime like North Korea’s is always massively important,” Madden told Agence France-Presse. “Even if she does not have a political office or formal position in the regime, making a personal appearance like this is a public demonstration of support for her nephew,” he added. “It is a strong expression of Kim family unity.”
Before her absence from public life, Kim Kyong-hui – the youngest daughter of North Korea’s founder, Kim Il-sung – was a four-star army general and politburo member. She is said to have been instrumental in grooming her nephew to succeed his father, who died from a heart attack in late 2011.