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May 29, 2017

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With successful launch, Kim and allies cement rule in North Korea

SEOUL (Reuters) - When North Korea's Kim Jong-un commemorates a year of his rule next week, he will be able to declare he has fulfilled the country's long-held dream of becoming a "space power".

Sharing the limelight with the 29-year old will be three civilians who have grown stronger in the past year and have helped Kim exert control over the country's powerful military, which may be an advantage in edging the country closer to an attempt to reopen dialogue with the United States.

Wednesday's successful rocket launch, in which North Korea put a satellite in space for the first time, may have helped cement the position of Kim's uncle Jang Song-thaek and Choe Ryong-hae, the military's top political strategist, as well as Ju Kyu-chang, the 84-year-old head of the country's missile and nuclear program.

"The rocket launch is a boost politically to the standing of Jang Song-thaek and Choe Ryong-hae, who have been around Kim Jong-un," said Baek Seung-joo of the Korea Institute of Defense Analyses, a government-affiliated think tank in South Korea.

While Washington has condemned the rocket launch and called for tougher sanctions on North Korea it was, as recently as February, willing to offer food aid to Pyongyang. At that time it was just over a year since the North shelled a South Korean island, killing civilians, and sank a South Korean warship.

The rise of Jang and Chae especially, once ridiculed as "fake" military men by army veterans, together with the country's aging chief missile bureaucrat, could also mean the renegade state will try its hand at using what is now stronger leverage in negotiations to extract aid and concessions.

Jang is the brother-in-law of Kim Jong-il and was the chief promoter of his son Kim Jong-un when the elder Kim died on December 17 last year. Jang has further increased his prominence in recent weeks with high-level public appearances, at times in unprecedented proximity to the leader of a country where appearance and formality are rigidly controlled.

Jang accompanied Kim to the rocket command centre to watch the successful launch on Wednesday, the North's state news agency KCNA said.

He is officially a vice chairman of the ruling National Defence Commission and an army general in name only, but is widely believed to be the North's second-in-command in reality.

Jang is considered a pragmatist who is willing to engage both allies and enemies abroad, but also one who understands the challenge of cementing the position of the young and relatively untested grandson of the state's founder.

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