North Korea leader apparently boots uncle from post
North Korea experts expressed concern and urged caution over intelligence reports that the country's young leader has removed his uncle and mentor from top-tier government positions — a move that would end suspicions that he was a mere puppet of pals of his late father, Kim Jong-il.
Kim Jong-un, believed to be about 30, removed his uncle, Jang Song-thaek, as vice chairman of the national defense commission and from a post in the ruling Workers' Party that oversees military and civilian affairs, South Korea's National Intelligence Service told its lawmakers on Tuesday.
In addition, the official South Korean news agency Yonhap said the intelligence service told lawmakers that “two of Jang's closest confidants were executed in public late November.” They were accused of corruption, Yonhap said.
The news agency quoted an intelligence official: “Such signs are an indication that Jang has been dismissed from all posts, although it is not known why he fell out of favor.”
The intelligence service briefed a committee of lawmakers about its assessment, telling them that two of Jang's aides had been publicly executed, according to a pair of lawmakers who attended the briefing.
Jang, 67, has been a key regent for Kim and has held one of the four vice chairmen positions on the National Defense Commission, the North's highest decision-making body.
According to South Korea's Unification Ministry, Jang has not been seen publicly since Nov. 6.
The actions, unconfirmed elsewhere, could have serious consequences, Korea experts told the Tribune-Review.
Kim may go into the almost annual spring showdown with South Korea and the United States without “adult supervision,” said David Maxwell, a Korea and military expert at Georgetown University. “That could mean that during the next violent provocation, there could be a miscalculation.”
Denny Roy, a senior fellow at the Hawaii-based East-West Center, said that could mean “a chance of rapid escalation” the next time there is a showdown over the North's nuclear program, rockets and launch pads or another issue.
Roy said the moves could indicate Kim Jong-un, after two years in power with Jang at his side, is becoming “his own man.”
In a culture where youth is suspect and age revered, several Korean experts agreed, Kim may have adopted the adage of Renaissance writer Niccolo Machiavelli: “It is better to be feared than loved, if you cannot be both.”
Since gaining power with the direct assistance of Jang, Kim set about replacing his late father's power structure. But South Korean sources have speculated whether Kim was in power or just a cover for Jang.
Kim has purged more than 200 officials, said Maxwell, associate director of the Center for Security Studies at Georgetown. Jang was sidelined as a key advisor by Kim's father but rehabilitated, he noted.
“Many people are surprised,” said Ellen Kim, a Korea expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “No one knows what the story is. Jang was responsible for opening economic zones (with China) in the country. We don't know if this means the military is gaining more power.”
Jang is married to Kim Kyong-hui, sister of the late leader and the current leader's aunt. The Korea JoongAng Daily, an English-language newspaper with access to South Korea's conservative leadership, reported that the aunt “tried to dissuade (Kim Jong-un) from dismissing Jang. But she failed.”
Richard Bush, senior fellow and East Asian expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington, took a cautious stance: “Jang is family,” and that factor and age “carry far in Korea.” In a Confucian society, Kim Kyong-hui's position should not be underestimated, he said.
“We don't have confirmation that it is true,” he said of the purge reports. “The intelligence service might have the evidence, but we don't know.”
Lou Kilzer is a Trib Total Media staff writer and former editor of one of the largest English-language dailies in South Korea. Reach him at 412-380-5628 or firstname.lastname@example.org.