Kim Kyong-hui
Kim Kyong-hui (circled) reappeared in state media reporting on Sunday, her first such appearance in over six years.
Kim Jong-un's aunt has made a surprise public appearance, six years after her husband was executed as a traitor.

Kim Kyong-hui, 73, was with Kim Jong-un and other party officials when they watched a Lunar New Year's music performance, the North's official KCNA news agency reported Sunday.

The North's top newspaper Rodon Sinmun published a picture which showed the aunt, bespectacled and wearing black Korean traditional clothes, sitting next to Kim Jong-un's wife Ri Sol-ju and the leader's sister Kim Yo-jong.

It listed Kim Kyong-hui's name next to the North's No 2, Choe Ryong-hae.

"This means that her familial status within the Kim dynasty remains largely intact, despite her political difficulties following her husband's execution," Professor Koh Yu-hwan of Dongguk University told South China Morning Post.

Kim Kyong-hui's husband Jang Song-thaek, once considered the second most powerful man in the highly hierarchical state, was executed in 2013 after a special military tribunal found him guilty of treason, the North's news media has reported.

His execution came after he was stripped of all posts and expelled from the ruling Workers' Party for "criminal acts" including mismanagement of the state financial system, womanising and alcohol abuse.

Jang brought together "undesirable forces and formed a faction as the boss of a modern day factional group for a long time and thus committed such hideous crime as attempting to overthrow the state," the North's official KCNA news agency said at the time.

South Korea's intelligence agency earlier reported that the anguished and grief-stricken Kim Kyong-hui had to be admitted to a sanatorium in the suburbs of Pyongyang.

But because of Jang's reported womanising, she had in effect split with Jang before his execution and she did not belong to Jang's faction, professor Koh noted.

Kim Kyong Hui and her husband were once a power couple that formed a kind of regency in the political world of the North behind its young and mercurial leader, who succeeded his father in December 2011.

"Many North Korea watchers had assumed that Kim Kyong-hui had gone into exile or even killed in the wake of her husband's death, so to see her pop up by the leader's side some six years later is certainly a surprise," said Oliver Hotham, managing editor of NK News, a Seoul-based organisation that monitors North Korea.

"That she's sitting right next to the leader and is listed second after Choe Ryong-hae suggests she might have been granted a significant new position, potentially advising Kim Jong-un on economic or political issues," he said.

But Cheong Seong-Chang, an expert from South Korea's private Sejong Institute 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.

Instead, her comeback is possibly an attempt by North Korea's young leader to strengthen the unity of his ruling family as he hardens the country's position toward the United States in stalled nuclear negotiations.

Kim Jong-un in December said his country no longer felt bound by its self-imposed moratorium on testing nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missiles, issuing a sinister warning that the world would witness a new strategic weapon "in the near future".

But analysts in Seoul said the North would not go to such an extreme as resuming such tests in coming months and would instead focus on its so-called "frontal breakthrough", an euphemism for all-out efforts to endure sanctions.

The North Korean leader had given the United States till the end of last year to ease sanctions, complaining that its 18 months of diplomacy with Trump had got nowhere.

KCNA on Sunday said: "Performers sang in high praises of the greatness of the Party overcoming every description of ordeals and difficulties facing the revolution".

They also sang songs "reflecting the profound reverence for and thanks to Kim Jong-un" and revolutionary songs of the "indomitable will and spirit of all the Korean people to follow the path of loyalty indicated by him and the Party until they come to the end of the Earth".