North Korea on Friday said it had executed its second-ranked official Jang Song-thaek — the uncle of the current leader Kim Jong-un — after accusing him of attempting to “overthrow” his nephew with “dirty political ambitions”.

Unexpected move

The announcement came barely four days after Mr. Jang, a powerful official who served as the vice-chairman of the National Defence Commission and was widely seen as the second-most powerful leader in the reclusive State, was removed from all of his posts in an unexpected move.

News of his execution and indications of a power struggle in the leadership brought expressions of concern from neighbouring South Korea, where officials said domestic instability in the North had, in the past, led to external provocations.

The purged Jang was married to, Kim Kyong-hui — the sister of former leader Kim Jong-il — who now serves as the powerful Secretary of Organisation of the ruling Korean Workers Party. Mr. Jang and Ms. Kim were an influential power centre during the reign of Kim Jong-il.

The death of Kim Jong-il in 2011 paved the way for his son, Kim Jong-un, thought to be 29 years old, to take control.

The younger Kim’s decision to purge his uncle has come as the clearest indicator yet of power struggles within the North’s ruling leadership, and has been seen as his attempt to underline his authority in the strongest terms.

What prompted a falling out between them remains unknown, though State media accused Mr. Jang of attempting to “overthrow the state by all sorts of intrigues and despicable methods with a wild ambition to grab the supreme power of our party and state”.

The fate of Mr. Kim’s aunt, Kim Kyong-hui, remains unknown, though she is likely to face a similar purging judging by the statement released by the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), which accused Mr. Jang of bringing together “undesirable forces” and forming “a faction”.

The statement strongly condemned Mr. Jang as “despicable human scum, who was worse than a dog”, saying he “perpetrated thrice-cursed acts of treachery in betrayal of such profound trust and warmest paternal love shown by the party and the leader for him”.

South Korea’s defence chief on Friday said the country would maintain “high military vigilance to deter potential provocations” by the North Korean regime.

Internal affair

The developments have also been closely followed in China — the North’s biggest source of aid — where the Foreign Ministry, on Friday, said it hoped to see the North “maintain political stability and realise economic development”. Asked about the reported execution, spokesperson Hong Lei said the matter was the North’s “internal affair”.

While the deposed Jang was seen by some in China as a supporter of closer economic ties, Mr. Hong, in response to a question on whether the purge would impact relations, stressed that China “will continue economic interactions... based on friendliness and mutual benefit”.

“We hope and believe that... economic cooperation and trade will move ahead in a sound and steady manner,” he said.

RELATED NEWS

Seoul calls for vigilance over North KoreaDecember 16, 2013

More In: World | International | News