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Powerful aunt and uncle at head of Kim dynasty

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Philip Sherwell

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North Korean soldiers train military dogs

RAW VISION: North Korean state-run television shows video of soldiers training military dogs and conducting a firing drill.

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While Kim Jong-un's image-makers seek to portray the boyish leader as a tough guy with his finger on the nuclear trigger, it is thought to be his aunt and uncle who are pulling the strings in North Korea.

Kim Kyong-hui and her husband, Jang Sung-taek, both 66, are the Pyongyang power couple chosen by Kim Jong-il before he died in 2011 to help consolidate the authority of his son. Analysts believe it is no coincidence the duo were seen last weekend sitting on either side of their nephew at a central committee session of the Workers Party, where Mr Kim issued his latest defiant message to the world, pledging to maintain nuclear weapons as ''the nation's life treasure''.

The speech presaged a week of escalating tensions as Mr Kim threatened the US and South Korea, and moved his missile batteries into firing positions. On Friday, Britain and Russia were warned the safety of the embassies could not be guaranteed ''in the event of conflict from April 10''.

Family ties: Kim Jong-il in 2010. Immediately behind are his sister Kim Kyong-hui and son Kim Jong-un.

Family ties: Kim Jong-il in 2010. Immediately behind are his sister Kim Kyong-hui and son Kim Jong-un. Photo: AP

On Saturday the US Defence Department announced it had delayed an intercontinental ballistic missile test planned for next week because of concerns the launch could be misinterpreted and exacerbate the Korean crisis.

The test of a Minuteman 3 at an air force base in California was not connected to the US-South Korean military exercises in that region that have angered North Korea.

Ms Kim is often the only female face in official photographs of ranks of generals and party chiefs. She is director of the party's Orwellian-sounding Organisation and Guidance Department, its most eminent post.

Powerful: Kim Kyong-hui (centre) at a Workers Party meeting in 2010.

Powerful: Kim Kyong-hui (centre) at a Workers Party meeting in 2010. Photo: AP

Her husband, who was Kim Jong-il's closest confidant, is vice-chairman of the National Defence Commission and the regime's key liaison with China, whose support is the country's economic lifeline.

But, as North Korea's ''first family'', the couple's most important role is to defend the dynasty by forging the young Kim's credentials as a powerful military figure, amid concerns that some of his generals do not trust him.

North Korea has been a family affair ever since its inception in 1948 under Kim Il-sung, who died in 1994.

As the daughter of the country's first leader, sister of its second and aunt of its third, Ms Kim has been a key political figure for four decades. She disappeared from public view for six years after 2003, having apparently fallen from favour, but re-emerged more powerful than ever and was made a four-star general in 2010.

By the following year, she and her husband were seen regularly in photographs of the young Kim's entourage, a sure sign of their membership of the inner circle.

One picture showed the three riding down a supermarket escalator together, standing behind Kim Jong-il in one of his last public appearances before his death. The escalator has now reportedly become a shrine for some North Koreans.

When not helping her nephew run the country, Ms Kim is the fast-food queen of Pyongyang, as owner of the city's only burger restaurant, although the menu offers ''minced meat and bread'' rather than using the American word ''burger''. The restaurant has by all accounts been a hit among the capital's elite for whom such treats are reserved.

The third member of the troika guiding Mr Kim is Choe Ryong-hae, a party bureaucrat whom he appointed head of the military after old-timers were purged. The three are trying to transform Mr Kim into a figurehead with a reputation as a military tactician able to handle an international crisis. It could not be a higher-stakes exercise in image manipulation.

Telegraph, London, AP

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