Powerful North Korean official purged from key role: reports

The reports from South Korea's intelligence services could not yet be independently verified. But they have kicked off a debate about Kim Jong-un's grip on power.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (R), walks past his uncle North Korean politician Jang Song-thaek, during a military parade to mark the birth anniversary of the late leader, Kim Jong-il in Pyongyang, in this file photo taken by Kyodo February 16, 2012.

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North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s powerful uncle, who is vice chairman of the military, has been dismissed from his post, lawmakers in South Korea say. While the move has yet to be confirmed, it has set off a debate about the young leader's grip on power in a country where the military has long held considerable clout.

The reports, originating with South Korea’s National Intelligence Service, could not be independently verified. But if they are, this could be the first open sign of change in North Korea’s leadership since Mr. Kim took the helm two years ago, reports The Washington Post.

“This could be a sign there’s a problem with Kim Jong-un’s grip on power,” Ahn Chan Il, who heads the World Institute for North Korea Studies in Seoul, told Bloomberg. “I suspect there is a stability issue in the regime.”

Kim has already replaced his chief of general staff three times since rising to power in 2011, and Jang Song-thaek, the uncle who was ousted, was last seen in North Korean media on Nov. 6, reports The Associated Press.

In addition to Mr. Jang reportedly losing his influential military position, ranked only behind Kim, two of his Worker’s Party aides were executed for corruption, the South Korean lawmakers said, according to Reuters.

[Jang] … has been the central figure in a coterie of top officials and family members who worked to ensure the young and untested son of Kim Jong Il took over power when his father died in 2011.

Jang, who is widely seen as an advocate of economic reform, was previously purged in a power struggle in 2004 under Kim Jong Il's rule but was reinstated two years later.

Analysts who watch the North's power structure say Jang's removal would not have been possible without leader Kim Jong Un's approval.

“Kim is warning the public with the executions, and it can only mean he’s feeling insecure about his power,” Lee Ji Sue, a professor of North Korean studies at Myongji University in Seoul told Bloomberg.

Observers say Kim has needed to demonstrate his command with the military since he took over the 1.2 million-strong Army after his father, Kim Jong-il, died in December 2011.

Lee Jong-min, dean of the graduate school of international studies at Yonsei University, told The Christian Science Monitor last year that Kim feels a particular need to “burnish his military credentials” as he has little on-hands or practical experience with the institution that has taken the leading role in the nation for decades. 

Kim’s grandfather, Kim Il-sung, had years of military experience as a revolutionary fighter, and under his rule the military played an increasingly important role in the ruling Worker’s Party. For that reason, his heir, Kim Jong-il, “sensed the need to establish himself as leader of the national defense commission as it gained ascendancy over the party,” the Monitor reports.

“The party is not supposed to control the military as in the Kim Il-sung era,” says Choi Jin-wook, senior fellow at the Korea Institute for National Unification. “After Kim Il-sung died, Kim Jong-il bypassed the party to control the military.”

Kim Jong-un’s confidence, in colorful recognition of his primacy over the generals and relatives who are believed to be orchestrating his rule, was clearly bolstered by the acquisition of formal titles. He has surrounded himself with newly promoted senior officers as he protects his own position behind an appearance of growing military strength. At the core of his top advisers is his uncle-in-law, Jang Song-thaek, married to Kim Jong-il's younger sister. Kim Jong-il named Jang a general as well as vice chairman of the national defense commission long before he died. 

It is no certainty that these reported moves would be a sign of weakness for Kim. Cheong Seong-chang, a researcher at the Sejong Institute told Bloomberg that, “The executions and Jang’s removal from posts show Kim Jong-un’s power is very solid at the moment.” Mr. Cheong said he expects “the race for loyalty will heat up in the ruling circle in the future.”

Furthermore, intelligence reports on North Korea have been wrong countless times in the past. “There are a lot of stories, and there have been a lot of stories that have not panned out,” John Delury, assistant professor of political science at Seoul Yonsei University, told Time. “At this point, there are still a lot of question marks.”

Information is scarce and the North Korean leadership tends not to announce this type of purge, says Brian Bridges, a Korea scholar at Lingnan University in Hong Kong. North Korea watchers usually find out about ousters after that fact, he says, noticing, say, that a certain figure failed to appear at an event, or has been quietly been replaced.

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