SEOUL – 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 Tuesday.
The National Intelligence Service told a parliamentary committee that it believed Jang Song Thaek had been removed as vice chairman of the North’s top military body, the National Defense 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 December 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,” lawmaker 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 No. 2 in the hierarchy, with a number of analysts naming him as the real power behind the young Kim’s throne.
“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,” Kim said.
Several analysts suggested Jang may have lost out in a power struggle with Choe Ryong Hae, a close Kim Jong Un confidant who holds the military rank of vice marshal and is director of the Korean People’s Army’s General Political Department.
In May, Kim sent Choe as his personal envoy to Beijing to hand-deliver a letter to China’s new president, Xi Jinping.
Jang has fallen out of favor before. In 2004, he was understood to have undergone “re-education” as a steel mill laborer 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 Defense Commission in 2010.
His wife, Kim Kyong Hui, has also long been at the center of power.
She was promoted to four-star general at the same time as Kim Jong Un in 2010, a sign of her key role in the family’s efforts to maintain its six-decade grip on power.
In the past year, she has been far less visible, with reports that she was seriously ill and had sought hospital treatment in Singapore on a number of occasions.
“This is the biggest political incident in North Korea since Kim Jong Un took power,” Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, said of Jang’s ouster.
Given Jang’s long, close ties to the ruling Kim family, analysts were divided over whether his dismissal would strengthen or weaken Kim Jong Un’s power base, with some suggesting the young leader may have been pressured into sacrificing his uncle.
Last month the North Korean defector-run news website, Daily NK, known for its sources inside North Korea, published a long article about Jang’s diminishing political clout.
The Seoul-based website quoted multiple sources suggesting Jang’s influence in policymaking decisions had waned, and that he appeared to have fallen out of favor with Kim Jong Un.