Jang Song-thaek, a key guardian and uncle of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, appears to have been removed from the reclusive state’s power circles, Seoul’s top intelligence agency said Tuesday.
The National Intelligence Service said in a report to Rep. Jung Cheong-rae of the main opposition Democratic Party that Jang has been removed from the public eye since two of his closest confidants were executed in mid-November.
The two executed officials are reported to be Ri Yong-ha and Jang Su-gil, who are senior members of the administration division of the North’s ruling Workers’ Party.
Analysts raised the possibility that Jang might have been eliminated from the power echelon following an intense power struggle.
“If he had been purged, we can presume that he could have lost in a power struggle. As he has served as a centerpiece in North Korea’s political balance of power, there could be some period of instability,” said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies.
“It has only been two years since Kim took the helm of the country. So without help from Jang who has supported Kim in the party, military and state organs, it would not be easy for him to lead the country stably.”
Jang, the vice chairman of the National Defense Commission, is the husband of late former ruler Kim Jong-il’s younger sister Kim Kyong-hui. He has been regarded as the most influential mentor for the fledgling leader, who was thrust into politics with only a few years of grooming upon his father’s death in December 2011.
Compared with other elites, Jang’s power was unparalleled. As the director of the ruling party’s administration, he headed the Ministry of State Security, the North’s top intelligence agency, and the Ministry of People’s Security, which is similar to Seoul’s National Policy Agency.
Analysts said if Jang had been eliminated from his post, the balance of power could tilt toward Choe Ryong-hae, the head of the General Political Bureau ― the powerful military organ under the direct control of the ruling Workers’ Party.
The bureau oversees military personnel affairs, including promotion and position assignment and disciplinary action ― a reason why some experts argue the body appears more influential than any other military organs.
Should Jang’s fall from power be confirmed, this could mean that Kim has consolidated his power sufficiently enough to lead the party without guidance from his powerful uncle, some analysts said.
“It could be an expression of Kim’s confidence, showing that he could lead the country without him. Without Jang, there could be many other new power elites Kim has appointed to rule the country,” said Koh Yoo-hwan, a North Korean expert at Dongguk University.
Some analysts have questioned Jang’s political influence, stressing that the dynastic ruling system in the North emphasizes a political pedigree as a prerequisite for a national leader. The seemingly waning health of Jang’s wife Kim Kyong-hui -― the North Korean leader’s aunt ― has also raised the question of whether her possible absence would undermine Jang’s political legitimacy.
Jang’s trajectory of success began in the early 1970s when he tied the knot with the late national founder Kim Il-sung’s daughter Kyong-hui. His status has since risen as the national founder’s son-in-law, ruler’s brother-in-law and currently leader’s uncle.
By Song Sang-ho