BEIJING — North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s spectacularly public ouster of his uncle, Jang Song Taek, could bring about more political turmoil as the purge extends to Jang’s coterie of powerful relatives and supporters.
Reverberations are likely to be felt from Beijing to Havana.
The 67-year-old Jang, who married into the ruling family and has been a fixture in the country’s hierarchy for decades, had installed his own blood relatives in the government and military. Jang’s cronies ran the army-owned companies that control the lucrative trade at the Chinese border. His brother-in-law, Jon Yong Jin, was ambassador to Cuba, after serving previously in Iceland and Sweden.
Jon is believed to have been recalled, as has one of Jang’s nephews, Jang Yong Chol, the ambassador to Malaysia until a few weeks ago.
“I don’t think the churning at the top is over,” said Marcus Noland, executive vice president of the Washington-based Peterson Institute for International Economics and a leading North Korea expert.
The family feud has been played out with unusual theatrical flair.
North Korean state television interrupted regular broadcasting Monday to show images of Jang Song Taek being yanked out of his seat at a special session of the ruling Workers’ Party, an unprecedented public humiliation of a man who until recently was considered the nation’s second-in-command.
Earlier in the day, the Korean Central News Agency had cited “anti-state and counterrevolutionary factional action” as the reason for Jang’s fall. The agency also blasted him as leading a dissolute and corrupt life influenced by capitalism, womanizing, gambling and drug use.
North Korea watchers said the purge revealed the volatility inside the 2-year-old reign of Kim Jong Un, who became the world’s youngest head of state when his father, Kim Jong Il, died in 2011. Just 30 now and in command of a crude nuclear arsenal, he has unnerved the international community with his impetuous behavior and eccentric friends, such as retired basketball player Dennis Rodman, who is due back in Pyongyang this month.
“The recent affairs seem to show that the Kim Jong Un regime has not stabilized yet. It’s not easy for young Kim to establish a sole leadership in just two years,” said Moon Hong-sik, a research fellow at the Institute for National Security Strategy in Seoul.
Kang Chol Hwan, a prominent North Korean defector, suggested that the purge was a risky move that could make Kim Jong Un vulnerable to a coup.
“If Kim wields his ax too indiscriminately to consolidate his grip on power, he could be paving the way for his own demise,” he wrote in a column published Monday in Chosun Ilbo, a South Korean newspaper.
According to Kang, Jang commanded about 200,000 North Korean troops who reported to the Workers’ Party Administration Department, which he headed. His connections extended into the army-controlled trading companies that procure most of North Korea’s hard currency by trading across the border with China and elsewhere.
Jang’s chief rival, Choe Ryong Hae, who has now become North Korea’s second-in-command, “has purged many seasoned generals the troops respect, turning the military into a powder keg,” Kang wrote.
Noland suggested, however, that despite such risks Kim must have been confident to act as he did. “If he is able to take out his uncle like that, it suggests he has a greater grip on power than people think,” he said.
Alexandre Mansourov of the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University’s Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies believes that Kim has proved himself as ruthless as his father.
“By eliminating Jang, Kim Jong Un has proven that he reigns supreme and is a formidable presence to be discounted only at one’s own peril. He knows his way around the dog-eat-dog world of North Korea,” Mansourov wrote Monday for the institute’s online publication 38 North. “Clearly, Kim Jong Un outwitted Jang, who must have known very well what could happen to the mentor of supreme leader when his apprentice outgrows him and therefore schemed tirelessly to secure his long-term position, but to no avail.’'
Debonair and well-traveled, at least by the standards of the reclusive communist government, Jang was perceived for years as the main conduit to the Chinese leadership and an advocate for Chinese-style reform and economic opening. North Korea’s ambassador to China, Ji Jae Ryong, is considered another Jang protege.
Jang was also believed to be in favor of protecting Kim Jong Nam, the current leader’s older brother, who was shunted aside in the succession and is now thought to be living in Macao under Chinese protection.
Jang’s “perceived close ties with China may have done a disservice to his standing in the eye of Kim, exposed him to criticism of being too subservient to China, and made him vulnerable to any anti-China backlash in Pyongyang,” wrote Mansourov.
In the public accusations against Jang, KCNA accused him of corruption in the border trade and of “throwing the state financial management system into confusion and committing such acts of treachery as selling off precious resources of the country at cheap prices.”
The first clues of the turmoil within North Korea came last week when South Korean intelligence reported the public execution in November of two of Jang’s confidants, Ri Yong Ha and Jang Soo Kil.
Last week, TV news channel YTN in Seoul reported that one of Jang’s closest confidants escaped to China two months ago and reached out to the South Korean government to seek asylum, citing a source familiar with the matter. According to the report, the confidant was in charge of managing Jang’s slush fund and is being protected by the South Korean intelligence agency.
Seoul’s Unification Ministry, which is in charge of North Korean affairs, said it had not confirmed the report about the asylum-seeker.
There is conflicting information about Jang’s fate and whereabouts, with some defector organizations reporting that he may have been executed over the weekend. But most accounts say he was put under arrest in mid-November and brought out only last Sunday so that the dramatic scene could be staged for television of the old man being yanked out of his chair.
The South Korean newspaper JoongAng Ilbo reported last week that Jang’s wife — Kim Kyong Hui, sister of the current leader’s father — remained with him and speculated that as “long as Kim Kyong Hui survives, no one would, at least physically, hurt Jang Song Taek.”
Jang’s power within the government has long been a source of insecurity in the ruling family. Kim Il Sung, the patriarch, reportedly disapproved of his daughter’s marriage. Kim Jong Il, the founder’s son and successor, was wary of his brother-in-law’s popularity inside North Korea and among foreign dignitaries, who considered Jang more open-minded and economically savvy.
In 2004, Jang was quietly purged from the leadership. But after Kim Jong Il suffered a stroke, he rehabilitated Jang, feeling he needed a mentor to groom his son, Kim Jong Un, to inherit power, and to serve as a constraining adult hand. Now the young Kim is left alone in charge, without a chaperon.
Times staff writer Demick reported from Beijing and special correspondent Choi from Seoul.