North Korea announced Monday the purge of leader Kim Jong-un's uncle, considered the country's second most powerful official, for a "dissolute and depraved life" linked to claims of corruption, drug use, gambling and womanizing.
The young North Korean leader will now rule without the relative long considered his mentor as he consolidated power after the death of his father, Kim Jong-il, two years ago. Jang Song Thaek's fall from the leadership, detailed in a lengthy dispatch by state media, is the latest and most significant in a series of personnel reshuffles that Kim has conducted in an apparent effort to bolster his power.
Some analysts see the purge as a sign of Kim Jong-un's growing confidence, but there has also been fear in Seoul that the removal of such an important part of the North's government — seen by outsiders as the leading supporter of Chinese-style economic reforms — could create dangerous instability or lead to a major miscalculation or attack on the South.
Tensions are still high on the Korean Peninsula following a torrent of threats in March and April by Kim Jong-un's government against Washington, Seoul and Tokyo, including vows of missile and nuclear strikes and warnings that Pyongyang would restart nuclear bomb fuel production.
South Korean intelligence officials said days ago that a purge was likely because two of Jang's aides had been executed last month for corruption. A recent state documentary in the North had all images of Jang removed.
Purge extends to Jang's supporters
Jang — who is married to Kim Jong-un's aunt, Kim Kyong Hui, the younger sister of Kim Jong-il — was described by state media as "abusing his power," being "engrossed in irregularities and corruption," and taking drugs and squandering money at casinos while undergoing medical treatment in a foreign country. The dispatch also said he had "improper relations with several women and was wined and dined at back parlours of deluxe restaurants."
Referring to North Korea as a "popular democratic dictatorship," the dispatch said "Jang seriously obstructed the nation's economic affairs and the improvement of the standard of people's living." Kim Jong-un has vowed to lift the country from poverty while also pursuing a nuclear weapons program that has drawn worldwide criticism — and heavy economic sanctions.
The decision to strip Jang of all posts and titles and expel him from the ruling Workers' Party was made at a Political Bureau meeting of the party's Central Committee on Sunday. The dispatch also indicated that the purge would extend to supporters of Jang, but did not provide details.
Opinion has been divided among analysts on what the purge may mean for the future of North Korea. Some analysts believe it shows a weakened Kim Jong-un fending off challengers, but others say it indicates the young leader's growing strength.
"I believe it shows Kim Jong-un is firmly in control and confident enough to remove even the senior-most officials," said Bruce Klingner, an Asia specialist at the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank in Washington.
He added, however: "There is no reason to believe with this latest ouster that there will be a change in North Korean policy; that the Kim dynasty will suddenly turn around its bad behaviour."
Jang purged several times previously
Jang has held a string of senior jobs, including membership in the National Defence Commission, the government's top ruling body. He served as a leading economic policy official in charge of the push to draw foreign investment, travelling in 2012 to China to discuss the establishment of special economic zones. Over the past, he assumed responsibility for North Korea's burgeoning sports industry, a pet project of Kim Jong-un's.
Jang has also reportedly been purged several times previously, only to return to power. But the formality and length of the current allegations against Jang suggest a more serious development.
Kim Jong-un has reportedly overseen other purges of senior officials, though none as high profile as this one.
One of the most notable personnel changes was the 2012 firing of military chief Ri Yong Ho, who was once also dubbed a mentor to Kim Jong-un. State media said he was dismissed in July 2012 due to an unspecified illness, but analysts speculated that Ri was purged because Kim wanted to reshape the government.
The North publicly executed 17 people last year and 40 this year, according to lawmakers who were briefed by South Korea's spy agency last week.