As speculation mounts that North Korean leader Kim Jong Il has selected third son Kim Jong Un to succeed him, information obtained Wednesday suggested a purge has begun of people close to Kim Jong Nam, the dictator’s first son and former heir apparent to the hermit regime.

According to information obtained by Kansai University professor Lee Young Hwa through Japanese intelligence sources, the political purge has so far targeted former schoolmates and close aides of Kim Jong Nam, 38.

Lee also quoted the sources as saying that an espionage organization in the labor party was recently disbanded, and that members of the group were close to Kim Jong Nam, who is best known in Japan for getting caught at Narita airport trying to slip into the country on a false passport in 2001, claiming he and his family were on their way to visit Tokyo Disneyland.

Other details, including the names of the people targeted and the scale of the purge, were not immediately known.

Political purges are nothing new for North Korea. When Kim Jong Il took power upon the death of his father, Kim Il Sung, a rival uncle and the uncle’s supporters disappeared from official life. The uncle was not seen for many years.

During that period, Kim also sent a rival half brother to Eastern Europe to serve as a diplomat — a career-long assignment that effectively turned into exile.

While the reported purge may also indicate attempts are being made to speed up the succession process as regional tensions mount over last week’s nuclear test and the North’s continuing missile activity, many analysts see a plan unfolding to leave Kim’s successor in control of a country that has apparently cemented its status as a nuclear-weapons state.

A Foreign Ministry official in Tokyo in charge of Asian affairs said Wednesday the sudden developments were likely triggered by Kim Jong Il’s failing health. The leader reportedly suffered a stroke last August and looked weak during an appearance in the legislature in April.

“Obviously they want to speed things up,” the official said.

Little is known about the Western-educated Kim Jong Un, 25.

While Kim Jong Nam spends much of his time in Beijing and Macau — by some accounts under Chinese protection — he has recently made it clear to foreign media he has no interest in becoming the Pyongyang leader. He was once considered the favorite to succeed his father.

Additional reporting by Jun Hongo

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.