A South Korean man watches TV news about the alleged dismissal of Jang Song-thaek (circled), North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's uncle, at a railway station in Seoul on Tuesday. Photo: AFP
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's uncle, who is the second most powerful man in the country, may have been removed from power after his two associates were executed, South Korea's intelligence agency said on Tuesday.
Jang Song-thaek has not made any appearances in public since his two closest confidants were executed in late November for corruption, and South Korea's National Intelligence Service (NIS) believed he might have been dismissed, South Korean lawmaker Jung Cheong-rae said, citing an NIS source.
The NIS said that the North's military has been informed of the execution of Jang's associates, Ri Yong-ha and Jang Soo-kil, two senior officials at the Administrative Department of the Workers' Party of Korea, South Korea's Yonhap News Agency reported.
"Such signs are an indication that Jang has been dismissed from all posts, although it is not known why he fell out of favor," reported Yonhap.
Jang Song-thaek, the husband of Kim Jong-un's aunt, serves as vice chairman of the National Defense Commission and is widely referred to as the No. 2 figure in North Korean politics. He is seen as an advocate of economic reform and played an instrumental role in Kim Jong-un's cementing of power after he succeeded his late father Kim Jong-il in December 2011.
Jang led a delegation to China in August 2012 to discuss setting up joint economic projects.
Analysts are cautious to make comments as there has been no confirmation of the ousting from Pyongyang and there used to be inaccurate reports on Pyongyang from the South.
For a closed country such as North Korea, it is usually the case that a high-level official is out of favor after a long absence from public appearances, Yang Mian, a professor of international relations at the Communication University of China, told the Global Times.
"For such a powerful figure as Jang, it is hard to draw such a conclusion as there may be other situations happening, for instance, Jang is sick, which Pyongyang usually does not spread to the media," Yang added.
Jang met with visiting Japanese official Antonio Inoki in early November, the Japan Times reported.
"We still need to wait for verification but if it is confirmed that Jang's closest aides were executed, then the possibility of Jang's dismissal is very high," Kim Yong-hyun, a professor of North Korean studies at Seoul-based Dongguk University, told the Global Times Tuesday.
"There was no direct or significant signal as to Jang's dismissal but the number of cases where Jang accompanied Kim declined by half to around 50 times this year," he added.
An article published last month on Daily NK, a website run by North Korean defectors, said Jang's political clout has been waning.
"There may be some division between Jang and the military on the country's path of either developing nuclear weapons or advancing the economy, and Kim Jong-un has to make a choice," Zhang Liangui, an expert on North Korean issues at the Party School of the Communist Party of China Central Committee, told the Global Times.
"I think it's very likely that the Kim regime will be strengthened with the removal of rivals, placing it on a firm base for direct rule by only Kim Jong-un," Kim Yong-hyun said.
The NIS also said that an article published by North Korea's official newspaper Rodong Sinmun on Sunday emphasized that the sole leadership of Kim Jong-un should be reinforced. This might be related to Jang's dismissal in an attempt to prevent any possible internal agitation that could be caused by his ouster.
Separately, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree on Monday to implement UN Security Council sanctions against North Korea, RIA Novosti news agency reported.
All North Korean ships must now undergo an inspection before being allowed to enter Russian ports. Russia's state and commercial organizations are also banned from helping North Korea to produce rockets.
With the move Russia intends to play a bigger role in the North Korea issue and lay a foundation for the restart of the Six-Party Talks, Zhang said.
The UN has imposed new sanctions on North Korea following its third nuclear test in February.
"The sanctions will work to make Pyongyang more isolated politically, but will not bring substantial influence to other aspects of the country such as the economy," Zhang said.
Agencies contributed to this story