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The inner circle behind new leader

North Korea's young, inexperienced next leader will lean on a seasoned inner circle headed by his aunt and uncle to guide him through the transition to supreme ruler.

North Korea's young, inexperienced next leader will lean on a seasoned inner circle headed by his aunt and uncle to guide him through the transition to supreme ruler.

Kim Jong Un, 27, who vaulted into leadership with the death of his father, Kim Jong Il, made his public debut as anointed successor, a role handed to him only 15 months ago. Kim Jong Il had 20 years of preparation at the side of his father, North Korean founder Kim Il Sung, who died in 1994. Experts say that because Kim Jong Un does not have that kind of experience, he will need the brains and political brawn of his father's closest confidants before formally taking power.

"Kim Jong Il was in a frantic race against time," said Jonathan Pollack, a North Korea expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington, "and he lost."

Analysts say two trusted family members and political power brokers have emerged as Kim Jong Un's main protectors: paternal aunt Kim Kyong Hui and her husband, Jang Song Thaek, who have risen to the top of the political and military elite since the succession campaign began two years ago. Both 65, they have the weight of seniority in a society that places a premium on age and alliances.

John Park of the U.S. Institute for Peace calls the aunt and uncle "key pillars" for Kim as he looks to establish his leadership. But he questions whether their power, derived from their personal ties with Kim Jong Il, will endure now that he is gone.

An important factor in Kim Jong Un's favor is that communist North Korea has only known rule by the Kims, and military and party leaders likely view a successful transition as key to their survival.

Here is a look at key members of the inner circle in North Korea:

Kim Kyong Hui: Kim is Kim Jong Il's younger sister. She kept a low profile for decades until 2009, when she began appearing with her brother during "on-the-spot guidance" trips nationwide. Now considered a top political official, she is expected to play a caretaker role with her nephew.

She is director of the light-industry department of the ruling Workers' Party's Central Committee, a post that has gained significance since North Korea made the industry sector a priority in 2009. She was also appointed to the Political Bureau last year and, like her nephew, was made a general in the Korean People's Army.

Jang Song Thaek: Kim Kyong Hui's husband is a Soviet-trained technocrat who was a rising star until he was demoted in early 2004, seen as a warning from his brother-in-law against cultivating too much influence.

Jang was brought back into the fold in 2006, and he has been gaining influence since then. He heads the party's administrative department and, more important, oversees the intelligence agency and other military-related institutions, according to the Sejong Research Institute, a security think tank in South Korea. In June 2009, he was made a vice chairman of the powerful National Defense Commission and is an alternate member of the Political Bureau.

Other key members:

Kim Yong Nam, president of Presidium of North Korea's parliament, often represents the country and is considered a nominal head of state. He is a member of the party's Central Committee.

Ri Yong Ho, vice marshal and chief of the General Staff of the Korean People's Army, promoted to vice chairman of the party's Central Military Commission last year and a member of the Presidium of the Political Bureau. Ri was close to Kim Jong Il and is said to have strong ties with Jang.

Choe Yong Rim, promoted to premier last year. His family is said to have long-standing ties with the Kim family. His daughter, Choe Son Hui, is a department director at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.