North Korea Confirms Sacking of Kim’s Uncle; Releases Rare Photos

Analysts say Jang Song Thaek was seen as a threat to Kim’s power.

South Koreans watch a news program about the dismissal of Jang Song Thaek, shown at a railway station in Seoul, Dec. 9, 2013.

North Korea officially confirmed Monday the purge of leader Kim Jong Un’s uncle Jang Song Thaek, accusing him of corruption and factionalism and expelling him from the ruling Workers’ Party in dramatic fashion during a rare public admonishment.

Photographs released by North Korea’s state TV broadcaster showed Jang, once the second most powerful man in the reclusive nuclear armed state, being forcibly removed from a meeting in an auditorium by two uniformed men.

It is believed to be the first time in about four decades that such humiliating pictures of a purged official have been made public, underscoring the young Kim’s ruthless rule, according to experts cited in reports.

South Korea’s spy agency had disclosed last week that the 67-year-old Jang, once seen as Kim’s mentor, may have been dismissed, saying he had not been seen publicly in weeks and that his two closest confidants had been executed.

The official Korea Central News Agency (KCNA) said Monday that Jang was removed from all his posts and expelled from Workers' Party during a meeting of its politburo on Sunday.

No information was provided about where the disgraced official was taken or what punishment he would face.

The meeting of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party “fully laid bare the anti-party, counter-revolutionary factional acts of Jang Song Thaek and their harmfulness and reactionary nature,” KCNA said.

The report said that Jang had “pretended to uphold the party and leader but was engrossed in such factional acts as dreaming different dreams and involving himself in double-dealing behind the scene.”

It said that Jang had worked to form a faction which “[threw] the state financial management system into confusion” and made it “impossible for the economic guidance organs … to perform their roles.”

“Affected by the capitalist way of living, Jang committed irregularities and corruption and led a dissolute and depraved life,” it said, which included “improper relations with several women,” being “wined and dined at back parlors of deluxe restaurants,” the use of drugs and gambling, the report said.

“Jang and his followers committed criminal acts baffling imagination and they did tremendous harm to our party and revolution.”

Facing execution?

An Chan-il, director of the Seoul-based World Institute for North Korea Studies, said that that Jang is unlikely to be executed for his crimes, though two of his close aides were reportedly publicly put to death in November for corruption and other anti-party activities.

“I think that if Jang Song Thaek were not related to Kim’s family, he would be executed,” An told RFA’s Korean Service on Monday .

“But he is the husband of Kim Kyong Hui, who has ‘Baekdu blood’,” he said, referring to Jang’s wife, who is the sister of Kim Jong Un’s father Kim Jong Il.

Jang and Kim Kyong Hui were once seen as the ultimate power couple in Pyongyang, but over the last year she has been less visible, with some reports saying she was seriously ill.

But according to Seoul-based Free North Korea Radio, Jang had already been executed on Thursday and photos of him released Monday were taken well before Sunday's meeting.

Agence France-Presse cited Free North Korea Radio as saying that high-level sources in the North confirmed that Jang and six other party and military cadres who were close to him had been executed in the capital Pyongyang, though officials in Seoul said they had no knowledge of the punishment.

The decision to remove Jang was widely reported in North Korea's media including on the front page of the official Rodong Sinmun newspaper on Monday, in contrast to the dismissal of officials in the past which were almost never reported.

Alexandre Mansourov, in an article written for the Washington-based Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies’ website 38 North, said that the footage of Jang’s arrest aired on television “was probably meant to show that Jang had no support in the party and that Kim Jong Un fully controlled the situation without fear of any resistance from the senior cadres in attendance.”

South Korean media reports had said last week that one of Jang’s aides has sought asylum in South Korea.

The unidentified aide, who managed funds for Jang, was being protected by South Korean officials in a secret location in China, according to cable news network YTN and the Kyunghyang Shinmun newspaper, citing sources close to the matter.

Last week, Jang's name was deleted from North Korea’s official media websites and his images were redacted from numerous documentaries about Kim Jong Un's activities.

Power struggle

Kim Jong Un has made sweeping changes to North Korea’s chain of command since taking the helm two years ago following the death of his father, Kim Jong Il, from a heart attack in December 2011. Last year, another figure seen as a mentor to the young leader, then military chief Ri Yong Ho, was removed due to “ill health.”

Jang, who is believed to have undergone “re-education” in a steel mill in 2004 after he was accused of corruption, returned to favor the following year and rapidly expanded his influence after Kim Jong Il suffered a stroke that left him impaired in 2008.

He was appointed vice chairman of the nation's top body, the National Defence Commission, in 2010, and was widely seen as the de facto number two in the hard-line communist state before his sacking.

North Korea watchers have suggested that Jang may have lost out in a power struggle with Choe Ryong Hae, who holds the military rank of vice marshal and is director of the Korean People's Army's General Political Department.

Kim Yong-hyun, a professor at Dongguk University in South Korea, said Jang's removal could be Kim Jong Un's final phase of consolidating power since he took over from his father in December 2011.

“Jang Song Thaek might have been a big burden to Kim Jong Un in his process of cementing a one-person-dictatorship system, so I believe he was purged Jang as part of a comprehensive restructuring,” Kim said.

“In the near future, we may see a vertical power structure which urges loyalty from the bottom of the system. Choe Ryong Hae might be in the spotlight, but his role will remain the same and the process of establishing a one-person dictatorship [for Kim] will accelerate quickly.”

Reported by RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Bong Park. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.