Kim Jong-un

Purge proves no one safe in the world according to Kim

Fall of seemingly invincible uncle suggests young leader is still trying to consolidate power

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 10 December, 2013, 1:21am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 10 December, 2013, 5:09pm

While the rest of North Korea's top brass leapt to their feet before Kim Jong-un, clapping wildly in a requisite show of respect at high-level meetings, his uncle, Jang Song-thaek, often seemed nonchalant, at times even bored.

Once considered the force behind the young leader, he displayed a bold insouciance that seemed calculated to show he was beyond reach.

So by purging his own uncle, Kim has delivered a more chilling message: No one is beyond the rule of law, not even family.

Jang's fall from grace has no doubt spooked Pyongyang's elite. It also suggests Kim is still trying to consolidate the power he inherited from his father two years ago.

It is the first time since the late 1970s that such humiliating pictures of a purged official have been made public, said Yang Moo-jin, of Seoul's University of North Korean Studies.

The message is clear: North Korea does not and will not allow a No 2

"The publication of such images is aimed at showing the world the purge is being led by Kim Jong-un himself," Yang said.

Jang, 67, was seen as a regent figure as Kim Jong-un was being groomed to succeed his father. At Kim Jong-il's funeral in 2011, he walked directly behind the younger Kim, a presence North Korea watchers interpreted as a clear sign Jang would be an important player as North Korea's heir apparent consolidated his leadership.

But analysts said Jang had become increasingly resented by the leader, who is about 30.

"Jong-un has built up a solid power base and he no longer needed a regent who appeared to be increasingly powerful and threatening," said Paik Hak-soon, a researcher at the South's Sejong Institute think tank.

"The message delivered today is clear. North Korea does not and will not allow a No 2 leader," said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul.

Although many analysts see Kim consolidating his power by removing Jang, Remco Breuker, a professor of Korean studies from Leiden University in the Netherlands, said there was no solid evidence suggesting that Kim was really behind the purge.

"It is possible that the hardliners and those in the army were behind this," he said.

Breuker said the government could be using the high-profile purge to signaling that there was "no come back".

Jang 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, leaving his health impaired.

But the latest pillorying was unprecedented and a startling show for a regime that typically keeps its internal politics secret.

"It is the first time that the North has listed personal accusations against a certain official in such great detail," an official at South Korea's Unification Ministry said.

"We see it as very unusual, extremely rare, even through the eras of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il combined," said the official, referring to the current leader's grandfather the founding president and his father.

"This time, Jang is gone for good. He'll never be allowed into politics again," said Paik, from the Sejong Institute.

Jang's expulsion raises the question of what will happen to Jang's wife, Kim Kyong-hui. North Koreans and foreign observers will be keeping a close watch for her appearance at memorials marking the second anniversary of Kim Jong-il's death on December 17.

Associated Press, Bloomberg, Agence France-Presse