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The Dear Sister Disappears

TOKYO – The Korean peninsula is stirring. In December, South Koreans will go to the polls to choose President Lee Myung-bak’s successor in what is currently a three-way contest. Meanwhile, China is seeking to seize opportunistically on the recent flare-up of a territorial dispute between South Korea and Japan to court the government in Seoul. But, perhaps most important, one of the pillars of the North Korean dictatorship may now be cracking – at a time when the country must once again cope with a severe, man-made food shortage.

On September 25, the South Korean media reported rumors that Kim Kyong-hui, the sister of the late “Dear Leader,” Kim Jong-il – and the aunt of North Korea’s twenty-something leader Kim Jong-un – was seriously ill. The reports have not been confirmed, but her name was missing from the list of attendees at a recent Supreme People’s Assembly. In secretive North Korea, that seems to be a clear sign that something is afoot. Singapore and China have been mentioned in Asian intelligence circles as possible treatment locations for Kim Kyong-hui.

After the death of her brother, Kim Jong-il, last year, Kim Kyong-hui was often seen accompanying her nephew on his inspection tours around the country. Her sudden disappearance has sparked much speculation about the fragility of the “Young General’s” regime; despite her notorious drinking habits, she was widely seen as the power behind Kim Jong-un’s throne.

The truth about her disappearance will, undoubtedly, remain murky for some time. Kim Jong-il was said to have died suddenly of a heart attack, though he had been dying of cancer for some time – a subterfuge aimed at concealing Kim Kyong-hui’s de facto leadership during her brother’s cancer treatments. Moreover, before he died, Kim Jong-il made a supreme effort to prepare the ground for his sister to continue as the key decision-maker, even under Kim Jong-un. He removed leaders who could potentially oppose her, including such senior figures as Lee Yong-chul and Lee Je-gang.