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North Korea's Public Purge Signals Leadership Transition

  • Daniel Schearf

FILE - Jang Song Thaek exits a car as he arrives at the Ziguangge building of Zhongnanhai, the central government compound, in Beijing, Aug. 17, 2012.

FILE - Jang Song Thaek exits a car as he arrives at the Ziguangge building of Zhongnanhai, the central government compound, in Beijing, Aug. 17, 2012.

North Korea has confirmed that leader Kim Jong Un's uncle and mentor, Jang Song Thaek, has been ousted in a public purge. Political analysts say the highly publicized dismissal is meant as a warning to ensure loyalty as the young leader consolidates power.

North Korea's state media confirmed intelligence reports Monday that Jang Song Thaek has been stripped of power and position for corruption and factionalism.

The Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported Jang and his associates abused power in acts against the communist party and ignored orders from leader Kim Jong Un, his nephew by marriage.

Jang was removed as vice chairman of North Korea's powerful National Defense Commission and accused of using drugs, gambling, womanizing and luxurious wining and dining.

Korean Central Television showed images of Jang being arrested by uniformed soldiers from a Sunday meeting of the political bureau of the Korean Workers Party attended by Kim Jong Un. His dismissal was also front page news on the official Rodong Sinmun newspaper.

Andrei Lankov, a professor of Korean history at Kookmin University, says that while political purges in Pyongyang are not uncommon, the level of publicity in this instance is unheard of.

“In the past, hundreds or maybe even thousands of high level officials have been purged. Some of them executed, some of them sent to exile or prison. Some of them eventually made a comeback. However, with very few exceptions in North Korea, purges have always been fixed. Unlike, say, the Soviet Union under Stalin, when they remove the high level official they usually did not make it public. When they did, it was never on such a scale,” said Lankov.

It is not clear what will happen to Jang or if the 67-year-old is facing any criminal charges.

South Korea's spy agency, the National Intelligence Service, first revealed the removal of Jang last week, along with the execution of two assistants and a purge of supporters.

Political analysts say the moves appear aimed at warning officials who challenge leader Kim Jong Un that not even family connections can protect them.

Cheong Seong-chang, a senior fellow at South Korea's Sejong Institute, believes Jang was probably perceived as posing a threat to Un.

Cheong said Jang Song Thaek's activities had become a problem as he tried to create his own power, and become stronger than he had been during the rule of Kim Jong Il. Two of his aides were executed at a military trial, he says, and he guesses Jang Song Thaek will be sent to a concentration camp or receive more drastic punishment.

Jang Song Thaek was quietly purged twice before under his brother-in-law, former North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. However, both times Jang was rescued and rehabilitated with the help of his wife, the aunt of Kim Jong Un, Kim Kyong Hui.

The couple tutored leader Kim Jong Un after his father's death, but South Korean media reports say Kim Kyong Hui has been suffering from illness and their influence dropped.

Much of the central North Korean leadership is from the era of Kim Jong Il and are in their 60s and 70s, leading analysts to debate the extent of their allegiance to the 30-year-old Kim Jong Un.

Since assuming power two years ago, Kim Jong Un has replaced more than 40% of high level officials, consolidating his rule and installing a younger generation of officials that are loyal to him, not his father.

The power shuffle raised concerns about political stability in the impoverished and nuclear-armed state.

Lankov says the risk of publicly removing Jang is likely temporary, whereas the reward for leader Kim Jong Un is longer term.

“I would not overestimate this impact because, at the same time, it shows to the bureaucrats that the young man is a person to be afraid of and that it's safer not to get in trouble with him. And, at the end of the day, such fear might actually increase stability in the country,” said Lankov.

Before he was removed from power, Jang Song Thaek, among other duties, was in charge of special economic zones run jointly with China.

Daniel Pinkston, the deputy director for Northeast Asia at the International Crisis Group, says the purge of Jang is not likely to affect relations with Beijing.

“With Jang being pushed aside I don't see any major change in that relationship. And, China has an incentive to keep the regime in power and ensure that North Korea is stable. And, I think they'll continue the level of support that we've seen in the past,” said Pinkston.

South Korean media reports said an assistant to Jang fled to China in November and is in South Korean custody. Officials in Seoul and Beijing would not confirm the alleged defection.

VOA Seoul Bureau Producer Youmi Kim contributed to this report.