SEOUL (Reuters) - The uncle of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is alive and appears to be safe, South Korea’s unification minister said on Wednesday, a day after the South’s National Intelligence Service said he had been removed from two powerful positions.
Jang Song Thaek, considered the second-most powerful man in the impoverished, reclusive North, was last seen in public in early November at a basketball match between North Korean and Japanese teams in Pyongyang.
“I understand that Jang Song Thaek is not in any physical danger,” Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-jae told lawmakers gathered at an emergency sub-committee meeting in Seoul.
The meeting was called to discuss the reshuffle in the North, which technically remains in a state of war with the South after their 1950-53 civil conflict ended in a mere truce.
Jang’s wife, Kim Kyong Hui, also appeared to be safe, Ryoo added, but he declined to comment further.
Jang has survived previous purges and official displeasure, thanks largely to his sometimes tempestuous marriage to Kim Kyong Hui, the daughter of North Korea’s founder, Kim Il Sung.
Intelligence officials in the South said they believed that two close associates of Jang were executed for corruption later last month.
Jang was likely sacked as vice chairman of the powerful National Defense Commission and as a department head of the ruling Workers’ Party, lawmaker Jung Cheong-rae said, citing a senior South Korean official with the National Intelligence Service.
Analysts who watch the North’s power structure say Jang’s removal would not have been possible without the approval of the third Kim to rule North Korea.
The move is likely to increase the clout of another close aide, Choe Ryong Hae, the top political operative for the army, which could mean a symbolic victory for the 1.2-million-strong military.
Reporting by Sanggyu Lim; Writing by Ju-min Park; Editing by James Pearson and Nick Macfie