North Korean Leader Purges Uncle for Faction-Building, Graft

North Korea said leader Kim Jong Un ousted his uncle and de facto deputy for abuse of power, corruption and gambling away foreign currency, in the highest-profile purge since Kim took power two years ago.

Jang Song Thaek was grabbed by the arms by two military officers and removed from a meeting of the ruling Workers’ Party in Pyongyang yesterday, according to a photo released today through North Korean television and obtained by Yonhap News Agency. Jang was stripped of all his posts and expelled from the party at the Politburo meeting, the North’s official Korean Central News Agency said earlier today.

Jang “desperately worked to form a faction within the party by creating an illusion about him,” KCNA said, days after South Korea said it suspected his ouster and that two of his aides had been executed.

The purge of a man who helped engineer the transfer of leadership to Kim from his father Kim Jong Il opens the door to a power shake-up in a country that has concentrated on building nuclear arms. Jang also led an economic delegation to China last year as North Korea struggles to revive its economy.

“North Korea will undergo volatility for some time before Kim fills the holes left empty by the purge,” Yang Moo Jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, said by phone. “The message delivered today is clear. North Korea does not and will not allow a No. 2 leader.”

‘Ideologically Sick’

Jang, who married Kim Jong Un’s aunt Kim Kyong Hui in 1972, was appointed as a vice chairman of the National Defense Commission, the highest seat of power in Pyongyang, just months before longtime ruler Kim Jong Il died in December 2010. A four-star general, Jang walked right behind the new leader during a funeral procession for Kim Jong Il that illustrated the power line-up in the secretive regime.

The nation’s former de facto No. 2 was “affected by the capitalist way of living,” as well as being “ideologically sick and extremely idle and easy-going,” KCNA said.

Jang sold off state resources cheaply, had “improper relations” with several women, and was wined and dined at back parlors, KCNA said. He used drugs and squandered foreign currency at casinos while receiving medical treatment overseas, it said.

“These are crimes serious enough to cost the lives of the whole family and their closest kin had he not been related to the leader,” Yang said.

Earlier Purge

The disappearance of a senior official instrumental to Kim’s succession isn’t unprecedented. In 2012, KCNA said that Ri Yong Ho, the general staff chief, had been removed from all posts, while all traces of his presence were eliminated from official footage and photos. KCNA gave no clear reason for the decision.

South Korean media with access to North Korean television reported over the weekend that footage of Jang has also been edited or deleted in propaganda documentaries.

Before his arrest, Jang oversaw special economic zones near the border with China as North Korea seeks to draw foreign investment and boost its economy.

“Setbacks are inevitable in the short term in drawing foreign capital,” Cheong Seong Chang, a senior analyst at the Sejong Institute think tank in South Korea, said in an e-mail.

China Relations

Jang’s dismissal is an internal affair of North Korea, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei told a briefing in Beijing today. China is North Korea’s chief diplomatic ally and financial backer.

“We will stay committed to promoting the traditional friendly cooperative relationship” between China and North Korea, Hong said.

Economic difficulties deepened in North Korea after its founder Kim Il Sung died in 1994 and a famine swept the country in the years that followed. Successor Kim Jong Il consolidated his power by prioritizing military development and the army-first policy still prevails in the Kim Jong Un era.

Following the assessment by the intelligence agency in Seoul that Jang might have been ousted, South Korea’s military heightened its readiness. No imminent signs of an atomic test were found in the North after the purge was suspected, South Korean defense officials said at a parliamentary hearing Dec. 5.

Nuclear Tests

North Korea has conducted three nuclear tests since 2006, including one in February under Kim Jong Un’s leadership, and has tried to develop the ability to deliver nuclear warheads on a long-range missile by conducting rocket launches.

In October, Kim also replaced his chief of general staff for a third time since taking over the North’s 1.2 million-strong army.

International talks aimed at dismantling the North’s nuclear programs through aid and political concessions haven’t been held since late 2008. During his visit to Seoul last week as part of a three-nation Asian trip, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden said his country is “prepared to go back to six-party talks when North Korea demonstrates its full commitment to complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization.”

The talks also involve South Korea, China, Russia and Japan.

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