Kim Jong-un's aunt reappears, six years after purge rumours

Justin McCurry in Tokyo
Photograph: 朝鮮通信社/AP

Kim Jong-un’s aunt has appeared in public for the first time in more than six years, ending speculation that she had been purged or executed after helping her nephew establish himself as North Korea’s leader.

The official newspaper of North Korea’s ruling party, the Rodong Sinmun, showed Kim Kyong-hui seated next to Kim and his wife, Ri Sol-ju, at a performance to mark the lunar new year at a theatre in Pyongyang on Saturday.

Her name was also mentioned in a report on the event by the KCNA state news agency.

Rumours that Kim Kyong-hui had been sidelined, or possibly executed, gained traction after her influential husband, Jang Song-thaek, was executed by firing squad for treason and corruption in December 2013.

Related: North Korea appoints hardline ex-army officer as new foreign minister

Days after Jang’s death, state media named his wife as a member of the funeral committee for another senior official. But she was not present at a ceremony to mark the second anniversary, days later, of the death of her brother and Kim Jong-un’s father, Kim Jong-il, and her name had not been mentioned in KCNA dispatches until Sunday.

Some observers believed she had become a victim of a series of purges her nephew ordered in an attempt to rid the ruling party of potential rivals. Others speculated that Kim Kyong-hui, a heavy drinker, had died due to ill health.

The 73-year-old’s sudden appearance is being seen as a show of family unity as the regime seeks to pressure the US into making concessions to restart stalled denuclearisation talks.

‘Massively important’

While she is unlikely to regain formal positions of political influence, her presence is hugely symbolic, according to Michael Madden, a North Korea leadership expert at the Stimson Center in Washington.

“The sudden appearance of major officials in a regime like North Korea’s is always massively important,” Madden told Agence France-Presse. “Even if she does not have a political office or formal position in the regime, making a personal appearance like this is a public demonstration of support for her nephew,” he added. “It is a strong expression of Kim family unity.”

Before her absence from public life, Kim Kyong-hui – the youngest daughter of North Korea’s founder, Kim Il-sung – was a four-star army general and politburo member.

She is said to have been instrumental in grooming her nephew to succeed his father, who died from a heart attack in late 2011.