SEOUL — The brother-in-law of North Korea's Kim Jong-Il has become even more powerful since Kim fell sick, officials and analysts say, with some believing he is effectively standing in for the supreme leader.
The influence of Jang Song-Taek has become greater than ever since Kim was reportedly hit by a stroke, Cheong Seong-Chang, of South Korea's private Sejong Institute think-tank, said Tuesday.
"Jang is apparently in charge of receiving orders from Kim and channelling them (to state agencies)," he told AFP.
A senior South Korean intelligence official went further, saying Jang was acting like a stand-in in day-to-day state affairs.
Kim, the absolute ruler of his hardline communist state, has never publicly designated a successor to run his impoverished but nuclear-armed nation.
After he failed to appear at a key parade on September 9, South Korean and US officials said he had suffered a stroke around mid-August.
Tokyo Broadcasting System, citing a US intelligence source, said Tuesday the 66-year-old suffered a second stroke in late October. South Korean officials could not confirm the report.
North Korean state media have recently issued a series of photos of Kim , in an apparent attempt to end speculation about his health. But they have all been undated.
One which was issued last week had been digitally altered to superimpose Kim's image on a military group, experts said.
The intelligence official, speaking on a radio talk show Monday on condition of anonymity, said Jang, 62, is now in full charge of the security and police agencies including the dreaded secret police.
"That's why people say Jang is in effect number two in terms of real power in the North," he said.
"For Chairman Kim, the most trustworthy person at a time of ill health is Jang, the husband of his sister," the official said.
He said Jang has a range of contacts within both the ruling party and the military. "Based on these facts, intelligence authorities here suspect Jang is acting like a stand-in for the chairman."
The official added: "We find it rather fortunate that Jang Song-Taek, not the military, is in effect governing the North."
Analysts said Jang's new powers do not necessarily mean he is in line to take over.
Cheong of the Sejong Institute did not believe he is acting as a stand-in and said the extra powers could easily be taken away depending on the state of Kim's health or on a whim.
"It's better to say Chairman Kim is ruling through Jang than Jang is ruling the North," former unification minister Chung Se-Hyun said Tuesday.
Jang, husband of Kim's sister Kim Kyong-Hui, was seen as the North's second most powerful man before falling out of favour in early 2004 -- reportedly because of his luxurious lifestyle.
He made a comeback in late 2005 and in October 2007 was appointed to head a party department which supervises police, judges and prosecutors.
Baek Seung-Joo of the Korea Institute for Defence Analyses said Jang's influence would likely grow as Kim ages further and his health worsens because relatives would limit access to the leader.
Baek told AFP Jang's rise in power would benefit the leader's eldest son Kim Jong-Nam.
"There is an axis of alliance between Jang, Kim Kyong-Hui and Kim Jong-Nam," he said.
But many analysts believe there will never be another all-powerful dynastic ruler, although a son could head up a collective leadership.
Cheong said that if Kim Jong-Il dies suddenly, there would be a power struggle through which a collective leadership from the party elite would likely emerge.
"Even if Kim dies suddenly, that does not mean the collapse of a control tower in the North," Cheong said.
Copyright 2008 AFP