SEOUL — In a palace intrigue that could shake the foundations of North Korea, 30-year-old leader Kim Jong Un has purged from the leadership the powerful uncle who had been his de facto regent for the last two years, North Korean news media confirmed Monday.
Declaring that Jang Sung Taek was “soaked with the capitalist lifestyle,” the Korea Central News Agency reported that he had been removed from all his posts and expelled from the governing Workers’ Party. Jang, 67, had been seen as a moderating influence on the young Kim.
North Korean state news outlets said the political bureau of the Workers’ Party met Saturday and “adopted a written decision to dismiss Jang from all of his positions and release him from the party.” Kim reportedly attended the meeting.
South Korea’s state spy agency, the National Intelligence Service, reported last week that Jang appeared to have been ousted from his position as vice chairman of the National Defense Commission, citing the recent public execution of two of his close confidants.
In its report, KCNA said: “Jang Sung Taek’s gang has carried out anti-party, anti-revolutionary factional activities that undermine the party’s solidarity and sole-leadership system. Their crimes, which are antigovernment and against the people, are enormously harmful.”
The government news service said Jang had been “leading a corruptive life, abusing his power.”
“The criminal activities Jang Sung Taek and his followers have carried out is beyond imagination,” it said.
The purge suggests that Kim believes he has sufficiently consolidated his rule to take the gamble of dumping one of the most potent figures in the North Korean leadership.
Jang is Kim’s uncle by marriage: His wife, Kim Kyong Hui, is the younger sister and the only full sibling of Kim Jong Un’s father, Kim Jong Il, who died in December 2011.
For more than decade, Jang had been seen as a relative liberal in the hard-line communist government and a possible alternative leader. He visited Seoul in 2002 and impressed South Koreans with his economic savvy. Kim Jong Il purged him in 2004 but later brought him back as an advisor to groom Kim Jong Un, then still in his 20s, to assume the leadership.
“Regents seldom end well. If they are smart, they know when to retire and they get a nice castle and a beautiful concubine, but they are seldom smart enough to do so,” said Andrei Lankov, a Seoul-based North Korea scholar.
Jang’s influence was also waning because of the poor health of his wife, who is believed to be an alcoholic and suffering from acute liver disease.
“Because Kim Jong Un has blood lines with Kim Kyong Hui, Jang’s wife, it is unlikely that he will try to get rid of her as well,” said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul. But, he said, “the chances of Jang’s return to politics are extremely low. The reasons of his dismissal are corruption and anti-state activities, not to forget ‘challenging the top leader.’”
His downfall lay in the rivalry between two security agencies: the Ministry of People’s Security, which was controlled by Jang, and a ministry that reported to the Organization and Guidance Department of the Workers’ Party, directly controlled by Kim Jong Un, suggested New Focus International, a website devoted to North Korea news and analysis.
Jang was “pursuing economic reform and opening” and “attempted personal diplomacy with the outside world,” the report said. Jang often circumvented the Foreign Ministry, and he organized a Nov. 7 meeting with retired Japanese wrestler and politician Antonio Inoki. That was his last public appearance.
The most immediate beneficiary of Jang’s removal appears to be 63-year-old Choe Ryong Hae, a vice marshal, who was the leadership’s envoy to meet with Chinese leader Xi Jinping last spring.
The purge, however, could augur instability in the leadership, as Jang was a popular figure who embodied many people’s hopes for economic reform.
“He was easy to get along with and took good care of those around him, so some people will be very unhappy or even annoyed at his removal,” Choi Jin Yong, a defector and former provincial official, told the online news service Daily NK. “North Korea is a society of fear. So a lot of Jang Sung Taek’s people will probably suffer in this round of purges.”
On Saturday, North Korean state TV showed a version of a documentary on Kim Jong Un’s military trips; Jang had been removed from all its scenes. Jang had appeared in a version that aired Oct. 28.
Special correspondent Choi reported from Seoul and Times staff writer Demick from Beijing.