Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-jae speaks to lawmakers Wednesday. (Yonhap News)
Seoul’s Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-jae said Wednesday that North Korea is currently in the process of purging associates of Jang Song-thaek, the apparently ousted uncle of leader Kim Jong-un.
During an emergency session of the parliamentary committee on foreign affairs and unification, Ryoo said the Seoul government knows Jang’s whereabouts and that his safety is not threatened for now.
He added the apparent dismissal of Jang could impact the projects to construct special economic zones in the border areas of Hwanggeumpyeong and Rajin-Sonbong, given that he spearheaded the projects with China.
His remarks came a day after the National Intelligence Service said Jang was highly likely to have been removed from the reclusive state’s power circles after two of his closest confidants were executed in late November for corruption.
“I understand that the purging of those connected to Jang was still taking place. … It is difficult to say (details on the purging),” said Ryoo.
As to Jang’s fate, Ryoo said he appeared to remain unharmed. He also said Kim Kyung-hui, his wife, was also “in a normal state.” The minister apparently dismissed the rumors that the health of his wife, who is North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s aunt, was failing.
Ryoo said that the Seoul government knew the whereabouts of the couple, but he refused to elaborate. He also refused to comment on the speculation that Jang was put under temporary house arrest.
Intelligence authorities believe that Jon Yong-jin, Pyongyang’s ambassador to Cuba, and Jang Yong-chol, the ambassador to Malaysia, appeared to be forced back to the North. Jon and Jang are Jang’s brother-in-law and nephew, respectively.
Touching on the two special economic zones under development, Ryoo said there might be an impact on their construction. But he said the possibility was not high that Jang’s dismissal would lead to any cancellation of Pyongyang’s current plans for reform and openness.
Jang has led a series of economic development projects including some in collaboration with the Beijing government. The apparent ouster of Jang, regarded as a dovish, reform-oriented figure, has thus raised concerns that Pyongyang’s desire toward reform and openness could weaken.
Regarding the rumors that Jang lost in a power struggle against Choe Ryong-hae, the director of the powerful General Political Bureau of the North Korean military, Ryoo presumed, “(His dismissal) has little to do with (a conflict with Choe) this time.”
Ryoo, however, indicated that Jang’s dismissal could be a result of a deliberate purge by the North Korean leader and a power struggle.
“The two possibilities may overlap. I can only tell you that. And the power struggle bears a concept that has multiple meanings,” he said, refusing to further elaborate.
Jang’s speculated fall from power came as a shock as 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 Police Agency.
By Song Sang-ho (firstname.lastname@example.org