The North Korean regime appears to be purging proteges of O Kuk-ryol, a vice chairman of the National Defense Commission who once headed the Workers Party's Operations Department, and leader Kim Jong il's brother-in-law Jang Song-taek, the director of the party's Administration Department and a sort of eminence grise in the North. The two wielded near-absolute power during Kim Jong-il's heyday but have kept at a respectful distance since Kim's son Jong-un was established as his heir.
A high-level North Korean source said that nearly 200 senior officials were executed or detained by the State Security Department in early December last year. They include many senior officials of trading companies under the military and the party, such as the head of Sogyong Trading Corporation under the party's Financial and Accounting Department; the head of "No. 54" Trading Company under the Ministry of People's Armed Forces; Pak Jong-su, the chief of a military-run coal trading company; the head of the general bureau of fuel oil; and Ri Jong-ho, the head of Taehung Trading Company.
Ri Chol-su, the head of the Taehung Trading Company's Wonsan branch and a protege of Jang's, jumped to his death during interrogation by the State Security Department on charges of illegally amassing of wealth and espionage. The matter was about to be closed after his suicide but instead it fueled a second-round of purges, with many others arrested on the strength of statements extracted under interrogation.
The purge was conducted with zeal by the senior deputy chief of the State Security Department U Dong-chuk, who discussed details of the plan with Kim father and son.
Security officers reportedly descended on the homes of senior officials in the early morning and dug out vast stashes of dollars at many of them. Rumor has it that in one of the homes officers found US$1 million. Observers speculate the chances of survival for those arrested are slim.
Kim junior reportedly gave the order to arrest anybody at whose home more than $50,000 was found, saying, "Those who illegally amassed money at a time when the country is in difficulty are traitors."
The fact that most of them are close aides to Jang and O has fueled speculation that Kim Jong-un is specifically targeting the two men. As the most powerful representatives of the old guard, they are considered the biggest obstacles to his assuming control.
Currently, Kim junior is issuing instructions on behalf of his father who is suffering ill health, but the real power is concentrated on Jang. With his health deteriorating since before he collapsed with a stroke in 2008, Kim Jong-il has depended more on his family than the party Politburo to rule. When all work was paralyzed after his collapse, Jang temporarily took over power and was more or less in sole charge.
As a result, it seems that the regime has no choice but to get rid of Jang if it is to hand full power over to Kim Jong-un without a hitch.
A former senior North Korean official who defected to the South said, "Kim Jong-il may be trying to hand over power to his son quickly, but nothing is going on as intended."
He recalled that Kim Il-sung's younger brother Kim Yong-ju, who contributed to establishing Kim Jong-il to the succession, was the first to be purged. "Jang Song-taek knows the story all too well, so it's likely that the wily old fox made thorough preparations for this. He would never sit idly by and let it happen," he added.
This paints a picture of utter confusion in the North Korean regime amid Kim senior's poor health and the power succession.