A key power broker within North Korea’s family dictatorship was reportedly ousted on Tuesday, a move that indicates new signs of instability within the reclusive, nuclear-armed communist state.
Jang Song Taek, a vice chairman of the powerful National Defense Commission and uncle of leader Kim Jong Un, is believed to have been removed from his positions of power in the North Korean party and military structure, U.S. and Western diplomatic sources said.
The ouster followed the execution of two Jang aides, signs of a major shake up in the power structure. He was considered to be the de facto second-in-command to Kim.
North Korean state media made no mention of Jang’s position.
An intelligence source said Jang has had an up-and-down career since the 2000s and gained power after Kim Jong Il’s death in December 2011.
His public profile sharply declined this year after the State Security Department launched an investigation into Jang’s closest associates as part of a corruption scandal.
The two aides were executed in late November and were identified as Lee Yong Ha, a first deputy in the Party Administrative Department headed by Jang, and Jang Soo Gil, a deputy director in the department.
The source said the executions are part of an effort by the regime to stem dissent within the North Korean ruling hierarchy. Kim Jong Un is said to be using the executions to signal to other party cadre that he is targeting corruption and anti-party activity and promoting total loyalty to the regime.
In addition to Jang’s ouster, the Party Administrative Department may also lose some of its power or be dissolved.
South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency reported Tuesday that the National Intelligence Service (NIS) believes Jang was ousted, and also that it has confirmed that the two associates were executed in public in late November.
The associates had been accused of corruption and activities against the ruling Workers’ Party of North Korea.
Jang disappeared from public view after the executions and was last seen Nov. 6 during a meeting with Japanese visitors to North Korea.
He last appeared in public with Kim Jong Un on Oct. 10 during a party anniversary celebration.
"Such signs are an indication that Jang has probably been dismissed from all posts, although it is not known why he fell out of favor," a senior government official told the semi-official South Korean news agency.
The official was quoted as saying the North Korean military was informed of the executions and that Kim Jong Un likely consented to the punishment.
North Korea has launched a series of public executions in recent weeks, including those of artists and others who may have been linked to a scandal involving Kim Jong Un’s wife, Ri Sol Ju, and her appearance in a film.
Nknews.org, a U.S. Internet site that tracks North Korean leadership appearances, revealed that Jang’s public appearances slowly declined over the past several years.
Jang appeared in state-controlled media 183 and 177 times respectively in 2010 and 2011. He logged only 105 appearances in 2012, following Kim Jong Un’s assumption of power after the death of his father in 2011. So far in 2013, Jang appeared in state media just 25 times.
If confirmed by Pyongyang, it would be the second time Jang was purged. Several years ago, Jang, who had been engaged in foreign commerce activities, disappeared from public view for several months before reappearing.
Jang is the husband of Kim Jong Un's aunt, Kim Kyong Hui, and both were recently promoted to senior leadership positions and long have been associated with North Korea’s failed economy.
Kim Kyong Hui was given full membership in the Worker’s Party Political Bureau and was made a Party secretary.
The fate of Jang’s wife, Kim Kyong Hui, could not be determined.
South Korean legislator Jung Chung Rae was quoted in the South Korean newspaper Joongang Daily as saying NIS could not confirm whether she was ousted.
"The NIS said the aunt, Kim Kyong Hui, tried to dissuade [North Korean officials] from dismissing Jang, her husband," Jung said. "But she failed."
Jang was also the No. 3 vice chairman on the all-powerful National Defense Commission, eclipsing Gen. O Kuk Ryol, a close ally of Kim Jong Il who has been linked by U.S. intelligence to North Korea’s wide-ranging illegal counterfeiting and drug trafficking.
Jang was thought by Korea watchers here and in Asia to be among those in the North Korean leadership who favored less emphasis on military and weapons development and more focus on economic development and keeping good relations with China.
A U.S. official described Jang and his wife as among the most senior political leaders in charge of overseeing the military.
In 2005, Jang’s brother, Vice Marshal Jang Song U, was in charge of the 3rd Army Corps that is deployed in the region surrounding Pyongyang, a key ally in any power dispute with the military.
As a sign of his power, Jang was photographed together with Kim Jong Un during the December 2012 launch of North Korea’s long-range Taepodong missile.
North Korea watchers said there are several theories behind the power shift. One is that ousting Jang is part of the 29-year-old Kim Jong Un seeking to consolidate power by removing his uncle from leadership posts.
It also could indicate that a major power struggle is underway in Pyongyang, something that could lead to instability.
Another possibility is that the reports of a power shake up are disinformation from the North Korean regime designed to fend off foreign pressure from China or other states that might be reluctant to take steps against Pyongyang if there are concerns about leadership instability.
China has been pressing for North Korea, South Korea, Japan, the United States, and Russia to rejoin stalled talks on North Korea’s nuclear program.
The United States and South Korea have said they are not interested in further nuclear talks until North Korea takes concrete steps to show it is serious about denuclearizing.
On Tuesday, North Korea signaled the opposite.
The Party newspaper Rodong Sinmun reported that North Korea would never abandon its nuclear arsenal as long as "imperialists" exist.
"Nuclear weapons are the life and soul of the nation that can never be bartered for anything and a treasure of reunified Korea," the newspaper said.
North Korea’s nuclear weapons are "a treasured sword of patriotism for defending and glorifying the sovereignty and dignity of the country and the nation."
State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said she has seen reports of Jang's ouster and referred questions to the North Korean government.