The wife of North Korea’s executed No. 2 leader failed to appear with other leaders at an anniversary meeting on Tuesday in Pyongyang—a sign U.S. officials say indicates the once-powerful aunt of current leader Kim Jong Un was ousted as part of the political purge underway in the reclusive communist state.
U.S. officials who monitor North Korea’s leadership said the failure of the aunt, Kim Kyong Hui, to appear at the second anniversary marking the death of the late leader Kim Jong Il is the first sign she was purged.
Kim, wife of Jang Song Thaek, was the only leader among 32 top North Korean officials who did not attend the anniversary service. The leadership lineup at the service was considered the bellwether of the new leadership lineup in the aftermath of Jang’s purge.
U.S. military officials said intelligence agencies are closely monitoring North Korea for signs of instability and potential military mobilization by North Korean forces. South Korean military forces were placed on a higher alert status following Jang’s execution.
A South Korean legislator involved in intelligence oversight said on Tuesday that North Korea appears to be preparing for another underground nuclear test and another long-range missile test.
Meanwhile, North Korea’s Ministry of State Security, the political police and intelligence service, has launched a massive hunt for all officials and supporters linked to Jang Song Thaek, the No. 2 leader who was first stripped of his position on the National Defense Commission and executed on Dec. 13.
The recall of overseas North Korean officials is a potential intelligence bonanza for U.S. and allied intelligence services.
Reports from Asia indicate at least three North Korean officials, including one with access to data on the North’s nuclear program, have defected or are seeking political asylum.
South Korea’s Chosun TV reported that Yi Mu Yong, a cabinet vice premier in charge of the chemical industry, had defected to China. A second high-level North Korean vice premier also was in China, the report said.
Hundreds of suspected members of what North Korea is calling the "Jang Song Thaek ring" involved in an alleged "state subversion" plot to overthrow the Kim Jong Un regime are under investigation or have been recalled to Pyongyang as part of the security probe.
The purge is unlike any political housecleaning operations since the 1950s, the officials said, and included the very unusual spectacle of publicly denouncing Jang and his alleged supporters.
North Korean state media on Dec. 13 said that in addition to subversion, Jang was found guilty by a military tribunal of obstructing the leadership succession process.
Jang also was denounced as "ugly human scum worse than a dog" and a "traitor for all ages"—rhetoric normally reserved for North Korea’s enemies in South Korea.
Until Tuesday, the fate of Kim Kyong Hui was uncertain. She was absent from the Dec. 8 special politburo meeting when her husband was dismissed.
However, on Dec. 15 Kim Kyong Hui had been named among the group of top leaders who were picked as the funeral committee for North Korean politburo member Kim Kuk Thae, a sign that she was still in power.
Kim Kyong Hui, 67, is the sister of former leader Kim Jong Il, who died in 2011. She currently is listed as part of the 15-member Workers Party Central Committee Political Bureau. She also is on the nine-member secretariat of the Party Central Control Committee. Both are powerful positions within the North Korean communist system.
Jang, 67, was a Political Bureau member since April 2012 and headed the powerful Central Committee Administrative Office since December 2007. More importantly, he was a member of the Central Military Commission, the ultimate power organ in North Korea, since September 2010.
The couple was considered the power behind 30-year-old Kim Jong Un.
Another result of the purge was the turnout of thousands of North Korean military personnel who lined up in the capital Pyongyang to voice loyalty toward Kim Jong Un in a military ceremony on Monday. News reports showed a banner that read, "Let us raise the great comrade Kim Jong Un to a pinnacle as the sole core for solidarity and leadership."
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying noted the anniversary of Kim Jong Il’s death and praised the dictator.
Kim Jong Il "made important contributions to the development of China-DPRK relations," she said, using the acronym for Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
"Maintaining the sound and stable development of China-DPRK relations serves the fundamental interests of the people in both China and the DPRK and helps maintain regional peace, stability, and development," she added.
Bruce Bechtol, a former defense intelligence official and expert on North Korea, said the purge is an indication of growing instability in the nuclear-armed state.
"The main thing it tells us is that there continues to be instability within the North Korean regime," Bechtol said. "And that’s largely because Kim Jong Un has been unable to establish his power base."
Bechtol, a professor at Angelo State University in Texas, said the execution of Jang raises new questions about who is ultimately in control in North Korea, where power had previously been balanced among the military, communist party, and Kim family.
Kim’s attempt to consolidate power "continues to be an unresolved issue in North Korea, and I think that’s what causes the instability that we continue to see," he said during a recent interview on Secure Freedom Radio.
South Korea’s defector-run Free North Korea Radio quoted a source in North Korea as saying top aides to Jang are under investigation and that as many as 30,000 people could be ousted or executed during the purge.
"Everyone is struck with terror given the truly bloody [mood] across the nation," the source was quoted as saying by telephone from Pyongyang. "At present, people related to Jang Song Thaek are being tracked down and purged almost daily."
The source stated that Kim Kyong Hui since April has been suffering from heart disease and dementia after she learned of the secret security probe of Jang.
Japan’s Asahi Shimbun reported Sunday that Kim Kyong Hui divorced Jang at the order of Kim Jong Un prior to his execution.
Since Jang’s execution, the MSS and the Security Command in North Korea have been "competitively arresting people" from several Party organs that Jang at one time led, according to the source quoted by Free North Korea Radio.
Among those identified as confederates of Jang are Chon Yong Chin, Jang’s brother in law, the family of Jang’s older brother Jang Song Kil, director of the Revolutionary Museum, and Jang Yong Kil, the son of another older brother.
Others reportedly under investigation include Choe Pu Il, a security minister and vice chairman of the State Physical Culture and Guidance Committee, Oh Kum Chol, vice chief of the General Staff, two cabinet vice premiers, Ro Tu Chol and Kim Yong Su, and Ri Yong Su, director of mass organization.
Rumors were circulating that several senior officials linked to Jang were also executed recently.
Under North Korea’s communist system, those designated as enemies of the state face execution along with two generations of their immediate families.
The purge is being assisted by two former Jang aides identified as Pak Pong Chu and Pak To Chun.