The aunt of North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-Un has been seen in public for the first time since the execution of her husband in 2013.
Kim Kyong Hui is the daughter of North Korea’s founder, Kim ll-sung, and sister to former leader Kim Jong-il.
She had largely disappeared from public view since 2013, after Kim Jong-Un ordered the execution of her husband, Jang Song Thaek, seen as the second most powerful man in the North at the time.
On Sunday, state media showed Kim Kyong Hui sitting near Kim Jong-Un at a performance celebrating the Lunar New Year in Pyongyang.
North Korea’s main newspaper also released a photo showing Kim Kyong Hui sitting near Kim Jong-Un and his wife, Ri Sol Ju, at the Samjiyon Theater.
Oliver Hotham, managing editor of NK News, a Seoul-based organisation that monitors North Korea said: ‘Many North Korea watchers had assumed that Kim Kyong Hui had gone into exile or had even been killed in the wake of her husband’s death, so to see her pop up by the leader’s side some six years later is certainly a surprise.’
Kim Kyong Hui and her husband were major players within the North Korean state at the time of their nephew’s ascension to power nearly a decade ago.
Kim Jong-Un succeeded his father as leader in 2011, and it was widely believed that Mr Jang was one of his mentors during the transition.
Two years into the new leader’s rule, Mr Jang was removed from a meeting by armed guards. Official statements claimed he had confessed to plotting to overthrow the state, and that he had been immediately executed.
Many observers of the North Korean state believe he may have been considered a threat to the young leader, and killed as part of a purge.
Kim Kyong Hui’s reappearance in a position of prominence suggests she has retained, or at least regained an influential position behind the scenes, Hotham said, noting that state media listed her after North Korea’s nominal No. 2, Choe Ryong Hae.
‘The fact that she’s sitting right next to the leader and is listed second after Choe Ryong Hae suggests she might have been granted a significant new position, potentially advising Kim Jong-Un on economic or political issues,’ he said.
‘It’s also a reminder of how weird and brutal North Korea is, after all she’s sitting next to the man who ordered her husband’s execution.’
Kim Kyong Hui held a slew of top posts such as a four-star army general and a ruling Workers’ Party departmental director.
She was also believed to have played a key role in grooming Kim Jong-Un as the next leader after Kim Jong-il suffered a stroke in 2008.
Some North Korean monitoring groups in Seoul and foreign media outlets had speculated Kim Jong-Un had his aunt also executed or purged, or that she died of health problems.
Outside experts said Kim Kyong Hui had long suffered from liver and heart problems and high blood pressure.
Kim Jong-Un is facing a year of sensitive international and domestic politics, as denuclearisation talks with the United States remain stalled and international sanctions restrict North Korea’s economy.