North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's politically powerful uncle Jang Song Thaek has been executed, the country’s official news agency reported, calling Kim's former mentor a traitor who tried to overthrow the state.
The Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported the execution early Friday, days after Pyongyang announced that Jang had been removed from all his posts because of allegations of corruption, drug use, gambling, womanizing and generally leading a "dissolute and depraved life."
Patrick Ventrell, communications director at the U.S. National Security Agency, said Washington had not been able to independently verify Jang's death but had "no reason to doubt the official KCNA report that Jang Song Thaek has been executed."
"If confirmed," Ventrell said, "this is another example of the extreme brutality of the North Korean regime. We are following developments in North Korea closely and consulting with our allies and partners in the region."
Jang was considered the second most powerful official in the North. He was seen as helping Kim Jong Un consolidate power after the death of his father, Kim Jong Il, two years ago. Jang was the latest and most significant in a series of personnel reshuffles that Kim Jong Un has conducted in an apparent effort to bolster his power.
KCNA said in a release that "despicable human scum Jang, who was worse than a dog, 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."
Jang was married to Kim Jong Un's aunt Kim Kyong Hui, the younger sister of Kim Jong Il. Jang was earlier described by state media as "abusing his power," being "engrossed in irregularities and corruption" and taking drugs and squandering money at casinos while undergoing medical treatment in a foreign country.
Some analysts see the apparent purge as a sign of Kim Jong Un's growing confidence, but there has also been fear in South Korea that the removal of such an important part of the North's government — seen by outsiders as the leading supporter of Chinese-style economic reforms — could create dangerous instability or lead to a miscalculation or attack on the South.
Greg Scarlatoiu, executive director of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, told Al Jazeera that the incident represented "nothing new" but that the move's ruthlessness and public nature were surprising.
"Purges had happened before as Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il were consolidating their grip on power. What is different in this case is that, as husband of Kim Kyong Hui, Jang Song Thaek belonged to the inner core of the Kim family regime. However, one has to remember that he and his wife were rather estranged, especially after the death of Kim Jong Il," who, Scarlatoiu said, wanted them to stay together.
“What was also rather unusual was that North Korean propaganda published footage of Jang being taken away in the midst of a Workers' Party conference," where he had been seated in the front row, Scarlatoiu said. "Purges are usually not made so public."
The ruthlessness of the move seemed to be on a par with the 1956 purging of the pro-Chinese Yunan faction and the pro-Soviet faction, which led to the consolidation of Kim Il Sung's rule, Scarlatoiu said.
"In similar fashion, Kim Jong Un has certified that he is the sole ruler of North Korea. If he had the strength to outmaneuver and purge Jang, he is firmly in control and the regime more stable than experts would have expected two years ago."
Tensions, however, are still high on the Korean Peninsula after a torrent of threats in March and April by Kim Jong Un's government against Washington, Seoul and Tokyo, including vows of missile and nuclear strikes and warnings that Pyongyang would restart production of nuclear bomb fuel.
Dominica Lim contributed to this report. With The Associated Press.