Why did North Korea's Kim oust his longtime mentor?

Kim Jong-un has reportedly purged his uncle, who guided the young leader through his first two turbulent years in power. 

Li Xin, Xinhua/AP/File
In this Aug. 14, 2012 file photo provided by China's Xinhua News Agency, Jang Song Thaek, North Korea's vice chairman of the powerful National Defense Commission, attends the third meeting on developing the economic zones in North Korea, in Beijing.

The man who once appeared as the guiding power behind North Korea’s young leader Kim Jong-un has apparently been ousted from all his posts, according to South Korea’s National Intelligence Service.

Jang Song-thaek, who owed his powerful positions in part to his marriage to Kim Jong-un’s aunt, Kim Kyong-hui, was dismissed as vice chairman of the national defense commission, a position considered the apex of power in North Korea. He also lost his job as head of the department in the ruling Workers’ Party that is responsible for the party’s military and civilian affairs.

The National Intelligence Service, briefing South Korean lawmakers, said that two of Mr. Jang’s senior aides in the party were executed publicly. All were charged with massive corruption. North Korea's state media has so far remained silent on the shake-up, which the South's intelligence service attributed to multiple sources.

Analysts here have been predicting for years that Jang would lose out in a power shakeup after Kim Jong-un took over from his father, Kim Jong-il, who died nearly two years ago after serving as the supreme leader for nearly 17 years. Jang had long been seen as the individual that carefully groomed Kim Jong-un and then advised him through a number of shaking events that included North Korea's threatened annihilation of South Korea, the launch of an orbital satellite and finally, last February, a successful underground nuclear test, its third.

Jang’s demise may be evidence of Kim Jong-un’s drive to consolidate his rule and remove those who might stand in his way, despite their importance in his early days as national leader. “The young man wants all the power,” says Kim Tae-woo,  a former top analyst with the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses here. “He can play a dangerous game. He can take drastic measures. Extreme behavior may be possible.”

Another factor, according to Mr. Kim, is that “hard-liners within the military wanted to eliminate ‘pacifist’ leaders – that is, ‘pacifist’ relatively speaking.”

Jang was believed to have been urging a pragmatic approach economically while the hard-liners have called for tough policies that would rule out concessions in talks on North Korea’s nuclear program.

Exiled, then rehabilitated – and out again

Jang’s chief foe is assumed to have been Chae Ryong-hae, also vice chairman of the national defense commission, in charge of the political bureau of the armed forces. Kim Jong-il bestowed the rank of four-star general on Jang and Kim Kyong-hui as well as Mr. Chae, even though all had risen to favor through party, not military, service. Chae most recently has had the rank of vice marshal.

In the Byzantine world of North Korean power politics, Chae was once a protege of Jang Song-thaek, says Kim Ki-sam, a former national intelligence service official now living in the US, but “now has turned his back on him.”

South Korea’s YTN cable news network said Kim Kyong-hui, always close to her nephew Kim Jong-un, pleaded for mercy for her husband.

Jang was exiled to a post in the countryside for two years more than a decade ago but is widely assumed to have owed his rehabilitation, and subsequent rapid rise, to his wife’s influence on her older brother, Kim Jong-il. Her influence now may be needed to persuade Kim Jong-un to spare Jang's life.

Exacerbate economic woes?

The question is whether the shakeup will be the precursor to deeper problems in a system in which the economy remains in deep trouble while the gap widens between the privileged elite and the mass of impoverished citizens.

“North Korea is very, very unstable,” says Kim Ki-sam.  “Chae is the only one who is close to Kim Jong-un.”

The power struggle raises the question of whether North Korea will increase the tempo of its nuclear and missile programs amid reports of activity at North Korea’s nuclear complex.

By apparent coincidence, a North Korean official in Beijing on Tuesday blamed “the U.S. hostile policy” for forcing North Korea “to possess self-defensive nuclear weapons,” according to Yonhap, the South Korean news agency. Yonhap quoted Nam Jong-chol, speaking at a security forum, as saying North Korea had to “strengthen nuclear deterrence in quantity and quality.”

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