The shock purge and execution of the North Korean leader's uncle stemmed from his attempts to take control of the country's lucrative coal export business, South Korea's spy chief told lawmakers yesterday.
Jang Song-thaek, the once-powerful uncle and political regent to young leader Kim Jong-un, was executed on December 12 on charges that included plotting a coup and corruption.
The execution, the biggest political upheaval since Kim took power two years ago, sparked speculation that Jang had lost out in a power struggle with hardline army generals.
But Nam Jae-joon, the head of South Korea's National Intelligence Service, said Jang's attempts to secure control of state-run natural resources businesses played a big part in his downfall.
Jang for years handled the country's mineral exports, which go mostly to China.
Nam, briefing members of parliament's intelligence committee on the situation in the North, also said the young ruler "appears to have no problem" in his grip on power, but may stage armed provocations against the South sometime between January and March to rally domestic unity.
"Jang intervened too much in lucrative state businesses ... related to coal, which drew mounting complaints from other [related] state bodies," lawmaker Jung Chung-rae said Nam told them at the closed hearing.
The impoverished but mineral-rich North has sought for years to bolster its crumbling economy by increasing exports of coal and other minerals, which account for the bulk of its exports to China.
But Jang and his associates angered other top party officials by rapidly expanding their control over the coveted mineral businesses, Nam said.
"Kim Jong-un was briefed about it ... and issued orders to correct the situation," Jung said.
But many officials loyal to Jang did not immediately accept his orders, which eventually led an angry Kim to launch a sweeping purge.
Nam said the regime was investigating officials in the administrative department once supervised by Jang as well as other state-run trading arms.
"The North is now trying to erase any traces of Jang ... partly by recalling many of his relatives and associates who lived overseas," Nam said.
Kim's powerful aunt, Kim Kyong-Hui, appeared to be shunning public appearances since the execution of her husband.
About 88 per cent of North Korea's trade last year involved China, according to figures from the South's Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency. Exports to China were worth US$2.4 billion last year.
Video: North Korean ministers denounce Kim Jong Un's uncle, Jang Song-thaek