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North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's uncle, seen as the hardline regime's political regent, has apparently been purged and two associates executed, South Korea's spy agency said Tuesday nearly two years after the young supremo came to power.
The National Intelligence Service (NIS) told a parliamentary committee that it believed Jang Song Thaek had been removed from all posts, including vice chairman of the communist country's top military body, the National Defence Commission.
If confirmed, Jang's ouster would mark the most significant purge at the top of the North Korean leadership since Kim Jong Un succeeded his late father Kim Jong Il in December 2011.
According to the NIS briefing, Jang was "recently ousted from his position and two of his close confidantes —Ri Yong-Ha and Jang Soo-Kil — were publicly executed in mid-November," lawmaker Jung Cheong-Rae told reporters.
North Korean military personnel had been notified of the executions, Jung said, adding that Jang, 67, had since "disappeared."
The husband of Kim Jong Il's powerful sister, Kim Kyong Hui, Jang was seen as instrumental in cementing Kim Jong Un's hold on power in the tricky transition period after his father's death.
He was often referred to as the unofficial number two in the hierarchy and the real power behind the throne of Kim, who is aged around 30.
"I can only guess that the roles played by Jang have caused some tension in the process of consolidating Kim Jong Un's power," said Kim Yong Hyun, a professor at Seoul's Dongguk University.
"Jang once visited South Korea and witnessed many aspects of capitalist society, including the changes that have been happening in China.
"So he was the figure who was most likely to aggressively push for some reforms and opening of the North's system," Kim said.
Several analysts suggested Jang may have lost out in a power struggle with Choe Ryong Hae, a close Kim Jong Un confidant who holds the military rank of vice marshal and is director of the Korean People's Army's General Political Department.
In May, Kim sent Choe as his personal envoy to Beijing to hand-deliver a letter to China's new president, Xi Jinping.
Jang Song Thaek has fallen out of favour before. In 2004 he was understood to have undergone "re-education" as a steel mill labourer because of suspected corruption, but he made a comeback the following year.
Jang expanded his influence rapidly after Kim Jong Il suffered a stroke in 2008 and he was appointed vice chairman of the powerful National Defence Commission in 2010.
His wife Kim Kyong Hui has also long been at the centre of power. She was promoted to four-star general at the same time as Kim Jong Un in 2010, a sign of her key role in the family's efforts to maintain its six-decade grip on power.
In the past year, she has been far less visible, with reports that she was seriously ill and had sought hospital treatment in Singapore on several occasions.
"Jang's ouster and the public execution of his associates means they had probably formed a significant political clique of their own," said Cheong Seong-Chang of the Sejong Institute think-tank in Seoul.
"The purge suggests Kim Jong Un has a very strong grip on power and it will lead to more competition within the leadership to showcase loyalty towards the leader," Cheong said.
Last month the North Korean defector-run news website, Daily NK, known for its sources inside North Korea, published a long article about Jang's diminishing political clout.
The Seoul-based website quoted multiple sources suggesting Jang's influence in policy-making decisions had waned, and that he appeared to have lost favour.
Lawmaker Cho Won-Jin, who also attended the NIS briefing, said North Korea had been putting out the word internally that Jang's executed associates had been found guilty of "anti-party" activity.
"Now the regime is trying really hard to close ranks by holding various ideology training sessions, urging unquestioned loyalty to Kim Jong Un," Cho said.