Shake-up in Pyongyang | Asia| An in-depth look at news from across the continent | DW | 04.12.2013
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Shake-up in Pyongyang

North Korea's young leader Kim Jong-un appears to have further consolidated his power. He reportedly sacked his uncle and mentor from his official post. It might increase the loyalty of the army and party towards Kim.

Just under two years ago, after the death of the then North Korea's leader Kim Jong-il, eight men accompanied the vehicle carrying his coffin through the capital Pyongyang. On the left side, there were four army representatives who, as per the official “Songun” (military first) doctrine, have absolute priority in North Korea. Army chief Ri Yong-ho was at the front, while defense minister Kim Yong-chun followed behind.

Ri was removed from his position six months later citing "health problems" and shortly thereafter, according to unconfirmed reports, was killed in a shootout with security forces. Defense Minister Kim lost his job after less than four months.

On the right side of the coffin vehicle walked four representatives of the communist party and the state. Leading the charge was Kim Jong-un, the youngest son and successor of the deceased. Behind Kim was the brother of the dead leader and uncle of the young ruler, Jang Song-thaek, who was followed by the President of the Supreme People's Assembly, Kim Yong-nam.

If the findings of the South Korea's National Intelligence Service (NIS) are confirmed, then Jang Song-thaek was probably dismissed from his position as vice-chairman of the National Defence Commission and as a department head of the ruling Workers' Party.

Kim Jong Un and Jang Song-Thaek walking alongside the coffin vehicle of Kim Jong Il Archiv 2011 (Photo: dpa)

Kim Jong-un has reportedly replaced nearly half of the most important officials, cadres and officers since he took power

He has not been seen in public since the beginning of November. Two of his closest associates were allegedly executed in public on charges of corruption and anti-party activities.

Jang's is a special case

North Korea observers say there is a lot more behind this latest purge. According to information from South Korea, Kim Jong-un has replaced nearly half of the most important officials, cadres and officers since he took power. The intention was to have new managerial staff who are loyal to him and not to his dead father.

The young leader is following the same tactic used by his father Kim Jong –il to consolidate his power after the death of North Korean founder Kim Il –Sung. But the dismissal of Jang is a special case.

The 67-year-old is married to the younger sister of Kim Jong- il, Kim Kyong –hee for more than 40 years. The couple had informally ruled North Korea, as Kim Jong- il recovered from a stroke, and they were then entrusted by the then ailing leader with the task of transferring power to his youngest son Kim Jong-un and protect him from possible intrigues and coup attempts.

As vice-chairman of the National Defense Commission, Jang was the number two in the hierarchy of power after young Kim and was responsible for the relations with the country's most important ally, China.

Rise of a new man

However, during the course of this year, Jang's public appearances alongside Kim Jong-un became increasingly rare, while his wife became ill and went abroad for treatment. The new ruler, instead, was frequently accompanied by Choe Ryong-hae.

The 63-year-old was appointed by the young Kim as army chief from the party side and given the rank of vice-marshal. Choe is supposed to increase the influence of the party over the armed forces, which pitted him directly against Jang, who has close ties to many military commanders.

North Korea's Choe Ryong Hae (Photo: AP)

Choi was able to become a member of the Central Committee at the age of 36 years

According to the website "Daily North Korea", Choe does not enjoy the respect of the entire officer corps in the military, as he only worked as the chairman of the Socialist Youth League for a long time. But it seems now that the decision has been taken. "Apparently, Jang has lost the power struggle with Choe," said a member of the South Korean Parliament, Jung Chung-rae.

The high status that Choe seems to enjoy with the leadership stems, according to researcher Cheong Seong-chang of the Seoul-based Sejong Institute, from his background of being born into a family that took part in anti-Japanese guerrilla warfare during World War II. These families are considered to be the second most important power group in the North Korean regime after the Kim family.

Due to the close friendship of his family with Kim's, Choi was able to become a member of the Central Committee at the age of 36 years. Since 2010, Choe is the only non-member of the Kim family who has a seat in the three highest party and army committees, becoming a right hand man of the new ruler. In May this year, he brought a letter from Kim to the China's new leader Xi Jinping.

Obscure economic policy

North Korea analysts are currently puzzled about the future course the East Asian country will take in terms of its economic policies. The reportedly ousted Kim's Uncle Jang is renowned as an advocate for economic reforms. He was, however, placed under house arrest in 2004, after he clashed with the then leader Kim Jong-il. But the young Kim apparently wants to introduce economic changes.

Therefore, wages were dramatically increased recently in the textile industry in order to boost productivity in the export sector. Kim also wants to attract more foreign capital, so that North Korea can free itself from its dependence on China. But a real opening of the country's economy seems unlikely.

Border posts at Panmunjom, South Korea (Photo: AP)

After Kim Jong Un took over power, border controls have become more tighter

This is indicated by the plans to set up 14 new special economic zones. The reforms thus remained limited in scope and were taking place under the strict control of the leadership. At the same time the regime seals off its citizens against foreign countries.

After Kim Jong Un took over power, border controls have become more tighter. There are also increasing reports of public executions of ordinary citizens, who are accused of possessing and consuming South Korean soap operas and movies. The intensified violence against the people marks a sustained reign of terror by Kim, who thus turns out to be an obedient follower of his father and grandfather.

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