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Kim Jong-Un: doubts over North Korean leader's health

The leader of North Korea was reported to be gravely ill after undergoing a cardiovascular procedure, sparking questions over who is in line to succeed him.

Kim Jong-Un: doubts over North Korean leader's health

North Korea has never publicised who would follow leader Kim Jong-Un in the event he is incapacitated, and with no details known about his young children, analysts say his sister and loyalists could form a regency until a successor is old enough to take over.

Kim Jong-Un health concerns

South Korean and Chinese officials on Tuesday cast doubt on reports that Kim was gravely ill after his absence from a key state anniversary event triggered speculation about his health.

Media outlets said Kim had gone under a cardiovascular procedure, with CNN citing a U.S. official with direct knowledge of the matter as saying that Washington was "monitoring intelligence" that Kim was in grave danger after a surgery. Two South Korean sources rejected CNN's report, while a Chinese source said they did not believe Kim was critically ill.

But the media reports sparked questions about who would be in place to take over if the 36-year-old Kim, a third-generation hereditary leader, fell seriously ill or died. He became leader when his father Kim Jong Il died in 2011 from a heart attack.

Each change of leadership in North Korea has raised the prospect of a leadership vacuum or collapse of the Kim dynasty, which has ruled the country since its founding in 1948.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (L) and South Korean President Moon Jae-in (R) pose for photographs after signing the Panmunjom Declaration for Peace, Prosperity and Unification of the Korean Peninsula - 27 April 2018.

So far, each of the three Kims to rule North Korea has defied expectations, holding on to power with an iron grip. But under Kim Jong Un, North Korea's arsenal of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles has grown substantially, raising concerns over who would control those weapons.

The following are key figures in the North Korean leadership circle and what role they may play in any future transition.

Kim Yo Jong, the younger sister

Kim's younger sister has been the most visible presence around the leader in the past two years, while serving formally as a vice director of the ruling Workers' Party's powerful Central Committee but unofficially as her brother's chief of staff.

She was named an alternate member of the ruling Workers' Party's powerful Central Committee Politburo earlier this month, continuing her climb through the leadership hierarchy.

Kim, who is believed to be 31, has a firm control of key party functions, setting herself to be the main source of power behind a collective leadership.

"Kim Yo Jong will be for the time being the main power base with control of the organisation and guidance department, the judiciary and public security," Cho Han-bum of the Korea Institute for National Unification said.

The party elders

Choe Ryong Hae rose to be the North's nominal head of state last year becoming the president of the Presidium of the Supreme People's Assembly.

It capped decades of service with the party for the ruling Kim family, previously serving as the influential political head of the North's military under the young leader.

He and Pak Pong Ju, a fellow politburo member and former state premier who oversaw the North's push to introduce more free market functions to revive its economy, are likely to be the figureheads leading a collective leadership.

Kim Yong Chol, a party vice chairman and former top nuclear envoy, and Foreign Minister Ri Son Gwon could be tasked with

handling diplomatic issues including stalled denuclearisation talks with North Korea as they played a key role in summits with U.S. President Donald Trump.

Estranged brothers, aunt

Kim Jong Chol is the leader's older brother but has not been part of the North's leadership, instead leading a quiet life

playing music, according to Thae Yong Ho, North Korea's former deputy ambassador in London who defected to the South.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un attends a lunch at the Okryugwan restaurant on September 19, 2018 in Pyongyang, North Korea.

He is believed to be disinterested in public life and is unlikely to emerge as a major presence, though some analysts say

he maintains ties with siblings and could play a more public role in a contingency.

Kim Kyong Hui was once a powerful figure in the leadership circle when her brother Kim Jong Il ruled the country. She had

not been seen since her husband, Jang Song Thaek, once regarded as the second most powerful man in the country, was executed in

2013 by Kim Jong Un. She has long been ill but briefly appeared early this year at a gala performance alongside her nephew.

Fourth generation

Kim Jong Un's estranged half-brother Kim Jong Nam, who was murdered by North Korean agents in 2017, is believed to have three children with Ri Sol Ju, the youngest born in 2017, according to the South's National Intelligence Service.

The oldest is a 10-year-old son, meaning any of the three would need the assistance of their relatives or political guardians if they were to become a fourth-generation hereditary leader.

Kim Jong Il had been groomed for 20 years to lead the country, while Kim Jong Un only had just over a year due to his father's sudden death from a stroke.

"Kim Yo Jong is unlikely to take over the helm but could help build a caretaker regime as a power broker until the kids grow up, and Kim Jong Chol might return to help for a while," said Go Myong-hyun, a research fellow at the Asian Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul.