The uncle of North Korea’s young dictator, Kim Jong Un, has reportedly been ousted. In a briefing to South Korean lawmakers on Tuesday, intelligence officials in Seoul said Jang Song Thaek was removed from his post as chairman of his country’s National Defense Commission, and that several of his associates were executed. The news, if confirmed, would be the biggest leadership shake-up in Pyongyang since Kim came to power.
Jang, 67, has long been considered among the most influential figures in North Korean politics. He is a Kim family insider who was a close adviser to Kim Jong Un’s late father, Kim Jong Il. When Kim Jong Un took the helm, many saw Jang as the regent, a puppet master pulling the strings. He is considered a reformer by North Korean standards and played a role in opening the country’s economy. After the death of the older Kim, Jang made a high-profile visit to China without the heir.
What might Jang’s apparent removal mean for North Korea? It may be weeks or months before we know, experts say. Information is scarce and the North Korean leadership tends not to announce this type of purge, says Brian Bridges, a Korea scholar at Lingnan University in Hong Kong. North Korea watchers usually find out about ousters after that fact, he says, noticing, say, that a certain figure failed to appear at an event, or has been quietly been replaced.
And, cautions John Delury, an assistant professor of political science at Yonsei University in Seoul, even the most astute observers of North Korea have been wrong before. “There are a lot of stories, and there have been a lot of stories that have not panned out,” he says. “At this point, there are still a lot of question marks.”
If South Korean intelligence is right about Jang, his downfall may reflect Kim’s rising confidence, Bridges says. “If it’s true, I think it probably means that Kim Jong Un is in control of what’s going on,” he says. “That he doesn’t need his uncle under his arm in the way that he did when he came back to power two years ago.”