North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s uncle, seen as his nephew’s political regent and one of the most powerful men in the country, has apparently been ousted and several associates executed, South Korea’s spy agency said.
The National Intelligence Service (NIS) told a parliamentary committee it believed Jang Song-thaek had been removed as vice-chairman of the North’s top military body, the National Defence Commission.
If confirmed, Jang’s ouster would mark the most significant purge at the top of North Korean leadership since Kim Jong-un succeeded his late father Kim Jong-il in Dec 2011.
According to the NIS, Jang was “recently ousted from his position and two of his close confidantes — Ri Yong-ha and Jang Soo-kil — were publicly executed in mid-November”, politician Jung Cheong-rae told reporters.
North Korean military personnel were notified of the executions, Jung said, adding that Jang, 67, had since “disappeared”.
The husband of Kim Jong-il’s powerful sister, Kim Kyong-hui, Jang was seen as instrumental in cementing Kim Jong-un’s hold on power in the tricky transition period after his father’s death.
He was often referred to as the unofficial number two in the hierarchy.
“I can only guess that the roles played by Jang have caused some tension in the process of consolidating Kim Jong-un’s power,” said Kim Yong-hyun, a professor at Seoul’s Dongguk University.
“Jang once visited South Korea and witnessed many aspects of capitalist society, including the changes that have been happening in China. So he was the figure who was most likely to aggressively push for some reforms and opening of the North’s system.”
Several analysts suggested Jang may have lost out in a power struggle with Choe Ryong-hae, a Kim Jong-un confidant.
In May, Kim sent Choe as his personal envoy to Beijing to hand deliver a letter to China’s new president, Xi Jinping.
Jang Song-thaek has fallen out of favour before. In 2004 he was understood to have undergone “re-education” as a steel mill labourer because of suspected corruption, but he made a comeback the following year.
Jang expanded his influence rapidly after Kim Jong-il suffered a stroke in 2008 and he was appointed vice-chairman of the powerful National Defence Commission in 2010.
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