SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — Images of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s uncle have been removed from an official state TV documentary, a disappearing act that appears to lend credence to Seoul’s claim that Pyongyang’s second most powerful official may have been purged by his nephew.
South Korea’s spy agency told lawmakers last week that it believes Jang Song Thaek was likely sacked after the executions last month of two close associates, allegedly over corruption. The National Intelligence Service hasn’t explained how it obtained the information, and skepticism followed the claim because of past intelligence failures in Seoul regarding the inner workings of the North’s secretive government. But some worry that, if true, the purge of such a powerful figure could lead to dangerous instability.
On Saturday, North Korea’s state TV repeated a documentary on Kim Jong Un’s military inspection trips. Although Jang appeared throughout the version that aired on Oct. 28, images of him had vanished from the new version. North Korea has previously deleted the images of purged officials from state videos and publications, according to a South Korean government agency that tracks North Korean propaganda.
In one scene in the original version, the bespectacled Jang can be seen wearing a winter parka and standing behind Kim Jong Un as the leader shakes hands with a soldier. But Jang cannot be seen in Saturday’s version, which has the same title and narration. Elsewhere in the older version, he is seen clapping his hands from a distance as a uniformed officer speaks to Kim. But the new version only shows what appear to be parts of Jang’s right arm, chest and abdomen.
Pyongyang has said nothing about Jang’s fate or the new version of the documentary. Jang was last seen in state media about a month ago.
Jang — who is married to Kim Jong Un’s aunt, Kim Kyong Hui, the younger sister of Kim Jong Il — has held a string of top jobs, including in the National Defense Commission, the government’s top ruling body. He was considered a major influence on the young leader as he consolidated power after Kim Jong Il’s December 2011 death. Jang has reportedly been purged several times previously, only to return to power.
In another development that Seoul’s spy agency is linking to Jang’s likely sacking, two people related to Jang who were serving abroad as diplomats have been recalled to North Korea, according to South Korean lawmakers who were briefed by intelligence officials.
South Korea’s Yonhap news agency, which first reported on the documentary, said the original documentary was broadcast nine times in October starting on Oct. 7.
An official at South Korea’s Unification Ministry, which is responsible for North Korea matters and closely studies the country’s propaganda, said that 17 scenes showing Jang had been removed from the original documentary. The official spoke on customary condition of anonymity, citing department rules.
The removal of Jang’s images in the documentary serves as indirect confirmation of his dismissal, analyst Cheong Seong-chang at the private Sejong Institute in South Korea said in an email. “The fact that North Korea has erased Jang’s face from the documentary … indicates that efforts to completely root out his influence are spreading to every level.”
Jang’s position will likely be better understood, analysts say, if he appears at state-organized events on Dec. 17 to mark the second anniversary of Kim Jong Il’s death.
Hayoung Kim contributed to this story from Seoul.
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