Kim Jong-un, the 30-year-old leader of North Korea, came to power two years ago so inexperienced and untested that the reclusive government named his uncle as the North Korean equivalent of a regent to watch over him.
On Tuesday, the National Intelligence Service of South Korea reported that the uncle, Jang Song-thaek, had been stripped of his powers, apparently by the young leader he was supposed to supervise. It was the biggest in a series of purges, promotions and reshufflings of elites that seem to have remade the government in the image of Mr. Kim, who inherited his title, and apparently techniques for keeping the government in control, from his father and grandfather.
The political changes, which were not announced by North Korea and could not be independently confirmed, follow a series of upheavals, especially within the military. American intelligence officials and some outside analysts speculate that Mr. Kim is sidelining the stalwarts of his father, Kim Jong-il, and elevating a new set of generals and party officials who owe their loyalty only to him. But there are also hints, one American intelligence official said, that “there was some kind of broader contest for control, which Jang lost, at least for now.”
Early in the young Mr. Kim’s tenure, American intelligence assessments questioned whether he would have the staying power to remain in office, and said he was regarded by the North Korean military as spoiled and naïve.
Two years later those assessments are reversing. He is now seen as fully in charge. Mr. Kim has already begun testing the loyalty of top officials by dismissing or demoting them and letting them try to win his favor again — often by spying against others, another technique of leadership inherited from his father, according to South Korean officials and analysts.
Mr. Jang’s apparent fall from power came after his two deputies at the administrative department of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea were executed last month on charges of “corruption and anti-party activities,” according to South Korean lawmakers who were briefed by intelligence officials in a hurriedly scheduled meeting at the National Assembly in Seoul.
The intelligence agency did not reveal how it learned of the executions, the lawmakers said.
“I don’t think Jang’s deputies were executed for mere corruption. Rather, they were executed because they established a ‘power,’ ” said Cheong Seong-chang, a senior analyst at Sejong Institute in South Korea.
Despite initial hints that Mr. Kim might seek a more cooperative relationship with the country’s neighbors and the United States, he has accompanied political changes at home with a hard-line nationalistic policy of accelerating the country’s nuclear program, the main card it has to play in international negotiations.
In February, North Korea conducted its third nuclear test, and it appears to be restarting its capacity to produce plutonium, a main ingredient for its small nuclear arsenal. And it has threatened to attack Japanese, South Korean and American targets, though in recent months the country’s warnings of imminent war have quieted.
The reported downfall of Mr. Jang, effectively North Korea’s No. 2 leader, set off a frenzy of speculation among North Korea watchers and South Korean government officials. Since Mr. Kim took power, they have theorized that a power and policy struggle might be playing out behind the public displays of mass solidarity. Mr. Jang’s rise in power in the past few years coincided with the humiliation of the old military elite, who surrendered some of their lucrative rights to trade in minerals and seafood to the cabinet and the party, where Mr. Jang has built his career.
Some analysts said they feared that the eclipse of Mr. Jang so early in Mr. Kim’s rule could suggest a power struggle that could destabilize the North. If so, they worry that Mr. Kim might resort to militaristic provocations to divert attention from domestic instability.
On Tuesday, the Defense Ministry in Seoul said it saw no unusual movement from the North Korean Army.
“Jang Song-thaek and his wife, Kim Kyong-hee, have been the core members of power upholding Kim Jong-un, and I think Jang’s fall will entail a serious shake-up in the North Korean political landscape,” Jeong Cheong-rae, a South Korean opposition lawmaker and member of the National Assembly’s intelligence committee, said Tuesday. “The intelligence agency gave us an unexpected briefing today, saying that they had something urgent to report about a development of great import in North Korea.”
In the past, North Korean officials reported to have been purged in South Korean media have resurfaced. Mr. Jang himself had disappeared twice in the past but later staged a comeback. Still, even before the South Korea intelligence report, his unusually long absence from North Korean media was viewed by the news media in the South as a sign that he was in trouble.
“The latest purge or execution of Jang’s followers sends a powerful message to all and particularly to those harboring illusions of power,” said Sung-yoon Lee, North Korea specialist at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.
“In a totalitarian system, the life of the No. 2 man or regent is oftentimes short and precarious,” Mr. Lee added.
Mr. Jang, 67, has been a fixture in the North Korean power elite since the days of Kim Jong-il, exercising his widespread influence from the party’s administrative department, which he headed. His wife is the sister of Kim Jong-il and an aunt of the current leader.
The couple emerged as key brokers of power after Kim Jong-il suffered a stroke in 2008. They played leading roles in engineering the fast-track grooming of Kim Jong-un as designated heir, analysts said.
After Kim Jong-il’s death in late 2011, the couple helped their nephew consolidate power through a series of purges that replaced 44 percent of top officials in the party, military and cabinet. (Mr. Jang is estranged from his ailing wife, according to reports in the South Korean news media.)
Outside news outlets have since called Mr. Jang a “guardian” and “mentor” for his young nephew. In April, Pak Pong-ju, an economic technocrat reportedly close to Mr. Jang, was made premier, a post that includes oversight of the economy. Last year, Mr. Jang visited China to seek Beijing’s help in building two free economic zones on its border.
But Mr. Jang’s seemingly unbridled influence has also prompted analysts to speculate that Mr. Kim would eventually see him as a challenge to his authority. They said that Mr. Kim had moved to weaken the broad network Mr. Jang had built while the regime was going through a transition in the last two years.
Mr. Jang would not be the first No. 2 or the first uncle of the North Korean leader to lose power. Kim Jong-il plotted a purge of his own powerful uncle to solidify control after the death of his father, the North’s founding president, Kim Il-sung.
In July last year, Kim Jong-un removed his then No. 2 man, Vice Marshal Ri Yong-ho.
Analysts said they suspected that Mr. Jang’s downfall may have been engineered by Kim Won-hong, who was made head of the nation’s secret police and spy agency in April last year, and Vice Marshal Choe Ryong-hae, who became the top political officer in the military under Mr. Kim. On Tuesday, the South Korean intelligence officials said North Korea’s secret police began investigating the corruption of Mr. Jang’s close allies this year.
When Mr. Jang vanished from public view before, the last time from 2003 to 2006, it was during a period when Mr. Kim’s father suppressed his power. He was humbled and later reinstated, according to South Korean officials. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/04/world/asia/uncle-of-north-korean-leader-stripped-of-power-according-to-reports.html?ref=world&pagewanted=print