Inside Story

Shake-up in North Korea?

We examine the reasons for the reported dismissal of Kim Jong-un's influential uncle, and its impact on the region.

Last updated: 05 Dec 2013 13:59
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North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's uncle, Jang Song Thaek, considered the power behind the throne, is believed to have been dismissed from his posts, a South Korean lawmaker has said.

It was all part of a series of promotions and reshufflings in North Korea that are said to be designed to secure Kim Jong-un's power base. 

The reported dismissal of the 67-year old Jang followed the execution of two of his deputies last month after they were convicted of corruption.

When you have any system of absolutism … when the leader is always bigger than the rules … then nobody is safe …

Aidan Foster-Carter, senior research fellow, Leeds University

He was vice president of the National Defence Commission - the country's highest decision-making body. He was among the most trusted lieutenants of the previous leader, Kim Jong-il until his death in 2011. He married Kim Jong-il's sister - Kim Kyong Hui in 1972. 

The couple is credited with grooming and helping their nephew secure his position as the leader of North Korea. Jang is also widely seen as an advocate of economic reform in a country whose economy is largely shattered.

North Korea is one of the most closed-off societies in the world. The country was established by Kim Il-sung in 1948, and it has since been ruled by his dynasty, where three generations have successfully handed down the country's leadership from father to son.

So, how have they managed to stay in power for so long?

This has been done through a complex web of competing security agencies. 

Among the most important is the State Security Department, it has thought to have 50,000 employees and is responsible for dealing with political dissidents.

We have to say he's reportedly gone or apparently gone, we don’t have any real confirmation that he is gone, nonetheless South Korea National Intelligence Server (NIS) swears he is gone .… It is believed that the NIS wouldn’t have been so definitive about it if they didn’t have pretty good proof, but we are still awaiting final final final confirmation.

Don Kirk ,correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor

There is also the Ministy of People's security - which is North Korea's police force and the most visible face of the security apparatus, employing some 210,000 people. The ministry also maintains the Korean People's Interior Security Force, which is used to suppress domestic unrest or protests, and finally, lower down the chain are Neighbourhood Watch Units, which spy and inform on citizens.

North Korea relies heavily on foreign aid and an estimated of two million North Koreans have died since the mid 1990s because of food shortages.The country has been known as something of an international pariah, and that has got a lot to do with its nuclear ambitions, which have isolated it from the rest of the world.

The country is also accused of systematic rights abuses including public executions, torture and forced labour, and an estimated 200,000 political prisoners are being held in labour camps.

There were hopes that Kim Jong-un would try to repair relations with the West following his father's death in December 2011.

But those hopes were dashed after the new leader tried and failed to launch a satellite into orbit. Japan, South Korea and the US said the launch was a cover up for testing a long-range ballistic missile. Later in the year, North Korea eventually succeeded in launching a long-range rocket, and a few months later, the UN Security Council approved new sanctions on the country after it carried out a third nuclear test.
In April this year, relations with South Korea hit a new low when Pyongyang threatened to restart facilities at its main Yongbyon nuclear complex.

So, what is behind the reported shake-up in North Korea's leadership? And how will it all impact an already nervous region?

Inside Story presenter Jane Dutton, discusses with guests: Don Kirk in Seoul, correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor, Sung-Yoon Lee, assistant professor of Korean Studies at the Fletcher School at Tufts University; and Aidan Foster Carter, honorary senior research fellow in sociology and modern Korea at Leeds University. 

"Well on the premise that [Jang Song Thaek] has been pushed although we don't know exactly about his present condition ... but based on the premise, it should not come as a surprise that the number two man ... in a totalitarian system like North Korea often becomes a target, target of political push."

- Sung-Yoon Lee, assistant Professor of Korean Studies at the Fletcher School


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