IT IS standard practice in authoritarian regimes, such as North Korea. One moment a top official is seen everywhere with the illustrious leader; the next, he vanishes from view.
Such appears to be the fate of Jang Song-thaek, powerful uncle of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, vice-chair of the influential National Defence Commission and department head of the ruling Workers’ Party.
According to South Korean spies, Mr Jang has been removed and two of his aides executed to increase the influence of Mr Kim’s ally, Choe Ryong Hae, director of the General Political Bureau of the Korean People’s Army, a 1.2 million-strong force.
Two South Korean MPs from the Seoul parliament’s intelligence committee told news briefings that the National Intelligence Service (NIS) had confirmed the public execution of two party aides of Jang’s for alleged corruption.
“The briefing by an NIS senior official was that they believe Jang Song-thaek has lost his posts,” said South Korean MP Jung Cheong-rae. “Following [the executions], the NIS said it believes Jang Song-thaek has not been seen and has lost his posts.”
The removal of Mr Jang, a key figure in the power transition following the 2011 death of Mr Kim’s father, Kim Jong-il, could tip the balance in the competitive group of aides surrounding the current leader but was unlikely to impact on Mr Kim’s hold on power, experts said.
“Jang Song-thaek is a person Kim Jong-un had to cut out as he solidifies his own power structure,” said Koh Yu-hwan of Dongguk University in Seoul, a leading expert on the North’s leadership. “I think the young elite had Kim get rid of Jang, meaning that he will rule without a guardian.”
Accordion-playing Jang, 67, is married to Mr Kim’s aunt, Kyong Hui, who is a daughter of the North’s founding leader and its “eternal president”, Kim Il-sung.
Mr Jang, an advocate of economic reform, was purged in 2004 by Kim Jong-il but was reinstated two years later.
One key question now is what his removal will mean for the North’s weakened economy.
“He [Jang] seems to be the face of economic reform, so there is a risk involved with removing someone that close to the programme,” said John Swenson-Wright, a senior fellow at Chatham House.
Earlier this year, Mr Jang and his wife were seen to back the appointment of Pak Pong-ju, a career technocrat, for the post of premier to reform the economy.
Mr Jang has been the key figure among top officials and family members who worked to ensure the young and untested son of Kim Jong-il took over power when his father died in 2011.
While Mr Jang’s fall could tip the balance of power in favour of Mr Choe, analysts say it is unlikely to signal a return to the sabre-rattling past. North Korea is involved in a standoff with the West over its nuclear programme. Tensions with the South soared earlier this year as the North reacted angrily to tightened United Nations’ sanctions imposed over its latest nuclear test, but then eased for several months. The two sides are still at war after the 1950-53 conflict ended in a truce.