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Kim’s aunt reemerges after years of speculation about fate

SEOUL, South Korea

The aunt of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un made her first public appearance in about six years, state media reported Sunday, quelling rumors that she was purged or executed by her nephew.

According to a Korean Central News Agency dispatch, the name of Kim Kyong Hui was included in a list of top North Korean officials who watched a performance marking Lunar New Year’s Day with Kim Jong Un at a Pyongyang theater on Saturday.

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.

Kim Kyong Hui, 73, was once an influential figure in North Korea as the only sister of late North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, the father of Kim Jong Un. She 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.

Kim Jong Un eventually inherited power after his father died of a heart attack in late 2011.

Kim Kyong Hui’s fate had been in doubt after Kim Jong Un had her husband, Jang Song Thaek, executed for treason in December 2013. He was once considered the North’s No. 2.

Days after Jang’s execution, Kim Kyong Hui’s name was mentioned in a KCNA dispatch as a member of a funeral committee for another top official. But she missed a state ceremony commemorating the second anniversary of Kim Jong Il’s death days later. Her name had since never been mentioned in North Korean state media until Sunday’s KCNA report.

Some North Korea monitoring groups in Seoul and foreign media outlets had speculated Kim Jong Un had his aunt also executed or purged, or she died of health problems. Outside experts said Kim Kyong Hui had long suffered from liver and heart problems and high blood pressure.

Analyst Cheong Seong-Chang at South Korea’s private Sejong Institute said Kim Kyong Hui’s reemergence suggested Kim Jong Un was attempting to strengthen a unity of his ruling family as he’s pushing to harden his position toward the United States in stalled nuclear negotiations.

Cheong, however, predicted that Kim Kyong Hui won’t likely regain her political influence as she has no position in the North’s powerful Politburo, whose memberships have already been filled with new figures.

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