The removal of Jang Song Thaek, once seen as Kim’s mentor, is the most significant in a series of purges the young leader has conducted in an apparent effort to bolster his power since his father’s 2011 death.
But worries remained over whether the expulsion of such a senior figure could instead lead to less stability and open up the possibility of a power struggle.
The confirmation that Pyongyang had “eliminated Jang and purged his group,” carried in an unusually detailed and lengthy dispatch by the North’s official Korean Central News Agency, was seen by some analysts as a warning against dissent.
It came about a week after South Korea’s spy agency said that two of Jang’s closest assistants had been executed for corruption.
North Korean state TV showed a still image of two uniformed guards holding Jang by the arms at a meeting of the country’s political bureau as dozens of dark-suited officials seated behind rows of long desks looked on.
With tensions on the Korean Peninsula still high following a torrent of threats in March and April by Kim’s government against Washington, Seoul and Tokyo, there were fears in Seoul that confusion in the North could lead to a miscalculation or attack.
Experts believe Pyongyang has a handful of crude nuclear bombs. South Korea’s defence ministry said there have been no suspicious military movements, however.
The allegations against Jang, 67, couldn’t be independently confirmed, and there was no mention of further punishment for him.
Jang, seen by outsiders as the North’s leading supporter of Chinese-style economic reforms, has reportedly been cast down before only to return to power. But the announcement was especially shrill, even by the standards of North Korea’s state media, suggesting this time he won’t be coming back.
“I believe it shows Kim Jong Un is firmly in control and confident enough to remove even the senior-most officials,” said Bruce Klingner, an Asia specialist at the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank in Washington.
“Kim has purged hundreds of officials since ascending the throne two years ago… Kim originally focused his wrath against the military, but by removing Jang, a senior Korea Workers’ Party official, the bloodletting may now be directed against real or imagined enemies within the party structure.”
Jang — who is married to Kim Jong Un’s aunt, Kim Kyong Hui, the younger sister of Kim Jong Il — was described as “abusing his power,” being “engrossed in irregularities and corruption,” and taking drugs and squandering money at casinos while undergoing medical treatment in a foreign country. The dispatch also said he had “improper relations with several women and was wined and dined at back parlours of deluxe restaurants.”
“Affected by the capitalist way of living, Jang committed irregularities and corruption and led a dissolute and depraved life,” it said.
The decision to strip Jang of all posts and titles and expel him from the ruling Workers’ Party was made at a political bureau meeting of the party’s central committee on Sunday. The dispatch also said the purge would extend to supporters of Jang but did not provide details.
A recent state documentary in the North that aired Saturday had all images of Jang removed.
North Koreans sometimes “disappear” for re-education and re-emerge later, and Jang has been purged before. He dropped out of sight for a few years in the mid-2000s, reportedly for going too far with fledgling economic reforms under Kim Jong Il. But the latest pillorying was unprecedented, and a startling show for a regime that typically keeps its internal politics secret.