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BEIJING — The House of Kim has shuffled its cards, but don't expect a prize for guessing who still holds the strongest hand.
In an unusually public purge, North Korean official media said Monday that the powerful uncle of ruler Kim Jong Un has been dismissed for crimes including faction-building, corruption, drug use and womanizing.
State TV aired humiliating photographs Monday that showed Jang Song Thaek, considered the country's second most powerful figure after Kim, being hauled away from a meeting by two uniformed guards. No date was given for the images, but the decision to strip Jang of all titles and party membership was taken at a top-level meeting of the ruling party Sunday, attended and "guided" by Kim Jong Un, Jang's nephew, reported KCNA, the state news agency.
North Korea's acknowledgment of Jang's dismissal confirms an account last week by South Korea's intelligence service.
Reporting to parliament in Seoul, the spy agency also said two of Jang's close aides were executed last month for corruption. Jang, 67, was long seen as the power behind the throne. Married to Kim Kyong Hui, a sister of the country's previous ruler Kim Jong Il, Jang played a regent-like role as Kim Jong Un was thrust into power in 2011, on his father Kim Jong Il's death, as the third generation of the ruling Kim dynasty.
The purge showed Kim consolidating his authority, several analysts said Monday, so Washington and other capitals must accept the young leader, about 30 years old, as the man to deal with on urgent security issues. But Kim also risks moving too quickly, they said, as citizens question how the Kim family failed for so long to unmask a traitor, and other officials consider rebellion before they themselves are purged.
In the time-honored fashion of secretive, socialist nations, North Korea had already signaled Jang was in deep political trouble by air-brushing him from official records this past weekend, reported South Korea's Chosun Ilbo newspaper Monday.
Korean Central Television broadcast documentary footage Saturday that had been changed to remove previously aired images of Jang, it said.
But the prominence and public nature of his dismissal, in state media broadcasts and written reports Monday, were highly unusual. Jang committed "anti-party, counter-revolutionary factional acts", said the dispatch carried by KCNA. While he "pretended to uphold the party," Jang was "dreaming different dreams and involving himself in double-dealing behind the scene."
Attacking the "ideologically sick" and corrupt Jang, KCNA said he "led a dissolute and depraved life," abused power, had "improper relations with several women and was wined and dined at back parlors of deluxe restaurants." He also used drugs and "squandered foreign currency at casinos while he was receiving medical treatment in a foreign country under the care of the party," said KCNA.
Even in authoritarian North Korea, this purge is "completely unprecedented," said Andrei Lankov, a North Korea expert at Kookmin University in Seoul. Jang represents the first arrest of a member of the ruling family, the first purge of someone so close to the top, and the first public purge, instead of the usual quiet disappearance, he said.
"Kim Jung Un wants to show his officials and the world that in spite of being short and fat, and with a strange haircut, he is not a person to be taken lightly, and not a person to mess with," said Lankov. The removal of Kim's regent, always a perilous position, will trigger "a chain of purges" over the next two years, he predicted. "A majority of the current North Korean top leaders are going to disappear in the near future," said Lankov. "These old men in their 60s and 70s have world views dramatically different" from Kim Jong Un, he said.
North Korea's power elite are widely believed to enjoy privileges and lifestyles beyond the imagination of North Korea's oppressed, impoverished people. After his second visit to North Korea in September, former NBA star Dennis Rodman described visiting Kim Jong Un's private island and yacht, and called his life a "seven-star," cocktail-fueled party. Rodman plans to return to Pyongyang on Dec. 18.
Money, sex and power are cited in the downfall of politicians worldwide, said Paik Hak-soon, a North Korea expert at the Sejong Institute, but Pyongyang has applied them all to Jang Song Thaek. Jang may well have been corrupt, as his power drew people to wine and dine him, but his downfall is no punishment for graft, said Paik.
"Kim Jong Un wanted to crush him as the symbol of any potential challenge," he said. "Kim needed to fully restore the authority of the supreme leader," said Paik. Jang played "a bridging role" in North Korean politics, similar to that of John the Baptist between the Bible's Old and New Testaments, he said. "But Jang's role is over now."