Jang Song-thaek is still alive, ministry believes

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Jang Song-thaek is still alive, ministry believes

The once-powerful uncle of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un may have been purged, but he’s still alive, South Korea’s unification minister said yesterday.

Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-jae yesterday briefed members of the National Assembly’s Intelligence Committee on the apparent rift in North Korea’s ruling dynasty in a meeting that was partly open to media.

When asked if Jang Song-thaek, husband of the younger sister of former leader Kim Jong-il and former political protector of Kim Jong-un, was alive, Ryoo said, “Jang is safe. But I can’t tell you much more.”

Concerning the fate of Jang’s wife, Kim Kyong-hui, Ryoo said, “As far as we know, there is no problem with her, which means she is [living] as usual.”

But Ryoo confirmed that two of the closest aides of Jang were publicly executed, seemingly part of the chain of events that led to his downfall, and that the executions have not stopped.

“Further executions of people related to Jang Song-thaek are ongoing,” Ryoo said.

With the purge of Jang, the Hwanggumpyong Economic Zone “will be affected,” Ryoo said. Jang was in charge of the project. The minister attributed Jang’s dismissal to an attempt by North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to consolidate his power and an internal power struggle between Jang and other insiders.

But the minister rejected the idea that Jang was pulled down by a rising military official, Choe Ryong-hae, chief of the General Political Bureau. Representative Hong Ik-pyo, a lawmaker of opposition Democratic Party, claimed at the briefing that Jang was put under house arrest on Nov. 18.

“According to information that the National Intelligence Service initially obtained, Jang started to be detained under house arrest from Nov. 18,” Hong said. “And [the sources told the NIS] his job in the ruling party has been suspended since then, and his aides, Ri Ryong-ha and Jang Su-gil, were both arrested.”

Hong also said that, in the wake of the purge, North Korea ordered all officials over the age of 65 to resign.

Ryoo refused to confirm Hong’s allegations. Although Ryoo did not mention how Jang’s two aides were executed, Cho Myung-chul, a defector-turned-lawmaker who attended the briefing, explained to his fellow lawmakers that “in general, public execution means shooting in North Korea.”

As of yesterday, North Korean media had not responded to the South’s reports on Jang. Rodong Sinmun, the ruling Workers’ Party newspaper, said yesterday in an editorial, “We will never forgive anyone who deviates from the revolutionary faith.”

Aside from being Kim Jong-un’s uncle and protector, Jang was associated with several economic plans that would have brought some reforms to North Korea.

South Korean Defense Minster Kim Kwan-jin held a meeting with high-ranking military officials yesterday and said, “Although we still must figure out the allegations of a purge of Jang, it is clear that a power shuffle is ongoing in North Korea. We should be thoroughly prepared for [a military clash].”

Sources told the JoongAng Ilbo yesterday that Jang opposed Kim Jong-un’s decision to close down the Kaesong Industrial Complex earlier this year, reportedly saying, “Comrade, you should not do this.”

Jang also reportedly dissuaded Kim from expanding the current special economic zones, saying it was too early. North Korea has gone through many political purges since the rule of the founder Kim Il Sung, who consolidated his power through various reigns of terror.

Kim Jong-il followed his father’s example, executing at least 2,000 North Korean politicians and military officials between 1997 and 2000,including a senior party secretary in charge of agricultural policy named So Kwan-hui. Under the rule of Kim Jong-un, Ri Yong-ho, former chief of the general staff of the army, was purged, which was reported by North Korea’s state media. The executed aides of Jang had vice-ministerial-level posts but were rarely seen at public occasions. Ri Ryong-ha, 66, was born in North Hwanghae Province and worked as a party secretary in his hometown in 2003. Sometime in 2009, Ri was promoted to first deputy director of the ruling party’s administrative department.

The administrative department plays a pivotal role in supervising organizations involved with public security, such as the Ministry of State Security, the Ministry of People’s Armed Forces, the local courts and the prosecutors’ offices. In October 2011, Ri received an honorary title, dubbed a “Hero of Diligence” for his efforts on economic and social development. He accompanied late leader Kim Jong-il on some of his so-called “field guidance trips.” Under Kim Jong-un’s rule, he sang a song with his wife at a performance of the Unhasu Orchestra that Kim Jong-un attended.

The age and hometown of Jang Su-gil, a deputy director of the administrative department, is unknown. He was appointed lieutenant general in February at an event to mark the 70th anniversary of the birthday of former leader Kim Jong-il.

BY KIM HEE-JIN [heejin@joongang.co.kr]
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