Purge of N. Korean leader's uncle expected to change leadership landscape

SEOUL, Dec. 4 (Yonhap) -- The likely purge of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's uncle from power is expected to change the leadership landscape in the communist country, intelligence sources said Wednesday.

The speculation comes on the heels of Seoul's spy agency informing lawmakers Tuesday that it had "multiple confirmations" indicating Jang Song-thaek's fall from grace and that two of his confidants had been publicly executed.

"Pyongyang is telling people that Jang's associates were punished for corruption and activities that run counter to the ruling Workers' Party of Korea (WPK)," a source at the National Intelligence Service (NIS) said. The insider, speaking under the condition of anonymity, said the fact that charges have been leveled at the confidants who were probably executed late last month is an indication that Jang has been stripped of his various posts.

Jang, who is married to Kim's biological aunt, holds the post of vice chairman of the National Defense Commission (NDC) along with several other senior titles in the WPK and government.

The NIS and unification ministry said if there was a systematic purge, it seems to be an ongoing process with other senior officials close to Jang being removed from power. There has been speculation that Prime Minister Pak Pong-ju could be dismissed along with other reform-minded technocrats, although there does not seem to be any change to their status at present.

If Jang has been ousted and there is a power struggle within the top echelons of North Korean society, there is a possibility that the main beneficiary could be Choe Ryong-hae, director of the military General Political Bureau and the armed forces.

Choe, who rose swiftly under Kim Jong-un to nab the military's No. 1 post, is known to have collided with Jang on economic reform issues in the past and has vied for power.

"With Jang out of the picture, Choe could be the most influential man in the country after Kim," a North Korea watcher said.

In addition, if the purge is extensive, it could lead to a major shift in power, with the military gaining the upper hand over the party.

Jang, to some extent, had used his base in the WPK to subordinate the armed forces that once enjoyed favor with the military-first, or songun politics, under the late leader Kim Jong-il.

There had been speculation that the top military brass who are loyal to Choe for their promotions such as Minister of People's Armed Forces Jang Jong-nam and Ri Yong-gil, may have been dissatisfied with the military being put on the back burner.

If the military gains the kind of favor that it enjoyed under the previous leader, there could once again be a resurgence of military men in key posts, which could lead to greater inter-Korean tension.

On the other hand, some North Korean pundits claimed that Kim may have decided to just get rid of his uncle, who may have become too strong.

"There have been claims that Kim recalled relatives of Jang who had been posted to diplomatic missions in Cuba and Malaysia," said another intelligence source. He said that if Kim had personally wanted to dismiss Jang and break up any influence he had, there may not be a lot of change in the communist country other than the posts being filled by new appointees.

"If this is true, the supremacy of the party over the military will continue as well as other policies such as striving for both economic growth and development of nuclear weapons," the source said.

He, moreover, said that Choe may not really be the No. 2 man in the country and may be relieved from his post at any time by Kim.

The expert argued that if Kim can sack his uncle, who helped him consolidate power, he can do the same to anyone in the country.

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