By James Pearson
SEOUL (Reuters) - North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's aunt was absent from a state memorial ceremony on Tuesday raising questions about her influence days after her husband, also a top state official, was executed.
The purging and execution of Jang Song Thaek on Friday was the biggest upheaval in years in North Korea, which has conducted three nuclear tests and this year raised the possibility of nuclear war with South Korea and the United States.
Jang was married to Kim Kyong Hui, a daughter of state founder Kim Il Sung and sister of the country's second leader, Kim Jong Il. She is an aunt of current leader Kim Jong Un, the third Kim to rule.
North Korea's KCNA news agency said last week Jang had been executed for trying to seize power and for driving the economy "into an uncontrollable catastrophe".
On Tuesday, his wife did not appear at a ceremony marking the second anniversary of the death of her brother, North Korea's second leader, Kim Jong Il.
Together, she and Jang had been considered the "Pyongyang power couple", the real force behind the North Korean leadership, before Jang was labeled a traitor and executed.
Kim Kyong Hui usually features prominently at important North Korean events alongside her nephew, the young new leader, Kim Jong Un, and other members of the North Korean elite.
North Korean state media did not say why she was absent from the commemoration at the Kumsusan Memorial Palace, in the capital, Pyongyang.
Political leaders, including Kim Jong Un and his wife, paid respects to the late Kim Jong Il, whose embalmed body lies in a glass coffin in the palace.
Kim Kyong Hui has been absent from such events in the past, stoking speculation that she was ill, only to reappear later.
OUT WITH THE OLD
Earlier in the day, the political and military elite publicly pledged their loyalty to Kim Jong Un at the memorial gathering, less than a week after the young leader ordered the execution of the powerful family ally, Jang.
The young Kim was the center of attention at the gathering with state television showed him sitting center stage beneath a big red mural of a flag emblazoned with a picture of his smiling father.
Kim, believed to be about 30, took over when his father died in December 2011.
Cheong Seong-jang, an analyst at the Sejong institute, a Seoul-based think tank, said by getting rid of his uncle, Jang, the young Kim had consolidated his position.
"By eliminating the only other faction, the power in North Korea is now fully concentrated on Kim Jong Un," Cheong said.
Since taking over as leader, the young Kim has followed his father's program by ordering the North's third nuclear test and successfully launching a long-range rocket in the face of increasingly tight U.N. sanctions.
Jang was the only leadership figure who may have posed any real threat to him.
While North Korea has purged many officials in its 65-year history, it is rare that anyone as powerful as Jang has been removed so publicly - suggesting a recognition of internal divisions and competing factions around Kim Jong Un.
The young Kim has removed most of Pyongyang's old guard during his comparatively short rule, replacing ageing generals and cadres with figures closer to his age.
He has changed his Korean People's Army (KPA) chief of staff four times. The job changed hands three times during his father's 17 years in power.
Choe Ryong Hae, a party apparatchik who has been around the Kim family for decades but had kept out of the limelight until three years ago, now appears to be the most influential adviser to Kim Jong Un.
On Monday, Choe addressed a gathering of soldiers outside the Kumsusan Memorial Palace, stressing the army's unswerving loyalty to the young Kim.
"It will always remain the army of Kim Jong Un defending him unto death and upholding his leadership only," an official KCNA news agency dispatch quoted Choe as saying.
(Additional reporting by Jumin Park and Sohee Kim; Editing by Paul Tait and Robert Birsel)