|Jang Song-thaek (left) is seen with Kim Jong-un (right) during a military parade in Pyongyang in February 2012. Jang was reportedly relieved from all political responsibilities in a political purge. (Kyodo News-Yonhap News.)|
A day after Seoul’s top intelligence agency talked of the possible purge of Jang Song-thaek, the powerful uncle of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, doubts still linger over his fate.
Analysts argued that it would take more time to confirm his whereabouts. Some argued that Jang could be under temporary house arrest as part of a move to weaken his exalted status and centralize power for the dynastic ruler.
“Rather than definitively purging Jang, I believe it was part of efforts by the North Korean leader to weaken Jang’s clout and rally elites behind the leader,” said Kim Heung-kwang, the head of the activist group North Korean Intellectual Solidarity.
“Given his contributions toward establishing North Korea’s dynastic ruling system and to consolidating Kim Jong-un’s leadership, it is difficult to simply oust Jang. But it is likely that Jang’s power has been lessened.”
Jang has been a central figure in the so-called guardian group formed to help the fledgling leader strengthen his grip on power in the ruling Workers’ Party, military and government organs. Jang is also the husband of the leader’s aunt, Kim Kyoung-hui.
Chang Yong-seok, an analyst at the Institute of Peace and Unification Studies, affiliated with Seoul National University, raised the possibility that Jang could be temporarily set aside amid a deepening conflict between Jang’s dovish, reformist faction and conservative hard-liners.
“After purging some of Jang’s closest confidants, (the North Korean leader) could leave him in place. He could have been, perhaps, put under house arrest, but not purged,” he said.
“I also doubt whether Choe Ryong-hae, the director of the General Political Bureau, could emerge in place of Jang, given the level of clout that Jang has accumulated across all social and political domains in the North.”
After the news of Jang’s apparent dismissal circulated this week, Choe, a civilian-turned-general who leads the military’s most powerful organ, has been cited as the most promising figure in the North’s political pecking order.
During a meeting of South Korea’s top military commanders, Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin said that it would require more intelligence to conclude whether or not Jang was purged.
The minister stressed that sources of instability in the North could lead to provocations against the South.
“In the process of some shifts in the North Korean power structure, there appears to be an atmosphere of terror. This could lead to provocations against South Korea,” Kim told top military officers during the meeting in Seoul.
“The North has recently strengthened forward-deployed forces and infiltration capabilities. And the threats whose origin can hardly be ascertained ― such as cyber threats ― have also increased. We need to prepare against all of these.”
As for the claim that Jang has been purged, Bruce Klingner, senior research fellow for Northeast Asia at the Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center, noted that it was not the first time he has disappeared from the political scene.
“It is worth remembering that Jang Song-thaek lost favor three times under Kim Jong-Il. All told, this is actually the fourth time that he has been purged,” he said.
By Song Sang-ho (email@example.com)