Kim Jong-Un's powerful uncle: ousted or just out of sight?

Mr Jang Song Thaek (above), the uncle of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, is alive and appears to be safe, South Korea's unification minister said on Wednesday, Dec 4, 2013, a day after the South's National Intelligence Service said he had been
Mr Jang Song Thaek (above), the uncle of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, is alive and appears to be safe, South Korea's unification minister said on Wednesday, Dec 4, 2013, a day after the South's National Intelligence Service said he had been removed from two powerful positions. -- FILE PHOTO: REUTERS

SEOUL (AFP) - South Korea's spy agency believes North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un has just carried out the most significant leadership purge since taking power two years ago, but confirmation may be a long time coming.

North Korea's state media have said nothing since the South's National Intelligence Service (NIS) told lawmakers on Tuesday that Kim appeared to have ousted his uncle and political regent Jang Song-Thaek.

Political avunculicide isn't a commonly used term, but in a leadership structure as inherently nepotistic as that of North Korea, it inevitably enjoys some precedent.

In the 1970s, then future leader Kim Jong-Il purged a powerful uncle he saw as a rival to succeeding his father - founding leader Kim Il-Sung.

Jang's apparent dismissal is particularly noteworthy given the crucial role he was seen as having played in securing Kim Jong-Un's own succession after his father Kim Jong-Il's death.

The NIS assessment triggered a wave of conjecture as to why Kim had turned on the 67-year-old who helped put him on the throne, and what it said about the young leader's grip on power.

"Two years after Kim Jong-Un took power, work is currently underway to reorganise the power structure within the inner circle," Defence Minister Kim Kwan-Jin told a meeting of top military commanders in Seoul on Wednesday.

However, the NIS report was only an assessment, and the main question regarding Jang's dismissal is still whether it actually happened or not.

The silence from North Korea is hardly unusual.

News of any import - unless it relates to national achievement - is rarely reported with any urgency, especially senior leadership changes.

Nevertheless, Jang's official titles did include that of vice-chairman of the National Defence Commission - a post high enough that it would be "typically reported" by state media once it had been effected, according to the authoritative North Korea Leadership Watch website.

The NIS based its assessment on two overlapping elements: intelligence reports that two close Jang associates were executed last month, and Jang's absence from public view since November 6.

Arguing that the executions could not have gone ahead with Jang in office, the agency concluded he must have been removed.

"It's circumstantial, and it's premature to say if the assessment is fair or reliable," said Kim Yong-Hyun, a North Korea expert at Dongguk University in Seoul.

Like many other analysts, Kim noted that NIS reports had been proven wrong before and that it was not unusual for even top North Korean leaders to disappear from public view - sometimes for months - before reappearing.

"The definite answer will only be provided, one way or the other, by the North Korean media," he said.

Leadership changes are often signalled in the lists, published by the state media, of high-ranking attendees at official events.

Without any forewarning, a new name will appear against a senior post, with no mention of the fate of its previous holder.

North Korea Leadership Watch pointed out that rumours of Jang's demotion or dismissal had surfaced in the South Korean media in 2009, 2010 and 2011.

He disappeared for almost two years in early 2004, but reports that he had been dismissed were never definitively confirmed and he finally reappeared.

Observers searching for supporting evidence for Jang's ouster will also be looking for any sign or mention of his wife, Kim Jong-Il's sister Kim Kyong-Hui.

For years, they have been viewed as the ultimate power couple in Pyongyang, and instrumental in jointly steering Kim Jong-Un safely through the tricky leadership transition period.

But in the past year, Kim Kyong-Hui has been less visible, with reports that she was seriously ill and had sought hospital treatment in Singapore on several occasions.

Unlike his wife, Jang's connection with the ruling Kim dynasty was by marriage, not blood, a distinction that may have cost him when his political utility was deemed to have waned.

In an extensive report written a year ago on the leadership changes under Kim Jong-Un, North Korea watcher Alexandre Mansourov had predicted Jang's eventual fall from grace.

"The young marshal (Kim) will use him for as long as he has to, but then he will surely cut him off, probably without much regret, just like his father purged his own uncle," Mansourov wrote.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.