The execution of North Korea's former eminence grise Jang Song-taek was not the result of a power struggle between hardliners and moderates but of jockeying for control of the feeding troughs, National Intelligence Service chief Nam Jae-joon said Monday.
Speaking to the National Assembly Intelligence Committee, Nam also dismissed rumors that a leading associate of Jang’s has defected to China or that Jang's widow Kim Kyong-hui is on her deathbed.
Nam said there was mounting dissatisfaction in the military and other agencies of the regime because Jang abused his position to dole out favors like business concessions.
Leader Kim Jong-un "began to distrust Jang after reports about his corruption and irregularities," Nam told the committee. "Jang was involved through Department 54 under the Workers Party in awarding concessions for lucrative projects like coal mining."
Originally, Department 54 was an army agency that supplied electricity, coal, fuel and clothes to military units but also acquired an octopus of business interests. But when Jang became chairman of the National Defense Commission, he put a close aide called Jang Su-gil in charge.
A kangaroo court ruling made public on Dec. 13 accused Jang Song-taek of selling concessions for coal and other mining licenses.
The NIS says the North is busy erasing Jang's traces and stepping up inspections of agencies he had a hand in. His relatives and associates are being recalled from abroad.
Kim Jong-un ordered Jang and his associates to settle the growing inter-agency conflicts and stop abusing their power, "but the order wasn't carried out, and he concluded that this was a direct challenge to his sole authority and decided to purge them," Nam added.
On Dec. 9, the regime released photos of Jang being hauled out of a Politburo meeting, and on Dec. 13, it published pictures of Jang in a kangaroo court, slumping and his hands tied with rope.
But the NIS believes he was already put in jail in mid-November. He was stripped of all posts and ousted from the party on Dec. 8 and executed on Dec. 12.
"In fact, he had been put in custody first, was taken out of jail for the meeting and put into jail again. It was all a show aimed at demonstrating the stability of the dictatorship," Nam said.
Jang's widow Kim Kyong-hui has no serious health problems but is staying out of the public eye, the NIS said. There were rumors that she is dying after she failed to show up at an event on Dec. 17 marking the second anniversary of former leader Kim Jong-il's death.
Kim Jong-un's wife Ri Sol-ju is "engaged in normal activities," the NIS said, and rumors that she had an affair with Jang are "unfounded."
Nam also denied on reports that Jang's cronies or even Kim Jong-un's elder half-brother Kim Jong-nam have defected. But he admitted he "can't confirm" Kim Jong-nam's whereabouts.
Nam also discussed developments in the upper echelons of the regime since Jang's ouster. "We believe that Kim Jong-un is having no big trouble tightening his grip on power, given that the purge didn't occur as a result of power struggle," he said. "But internal disunity could grow quickly if the regime bungles any more policies."
Nam pointed to Kim Won-hong at the State Security Department, as one of the "closest aides" to Kim Jong-un, alongside military Politburo chief Choe Ryong-hae.
"Kim Won-hong has recently emerged as an influential official as the regime is tightening controls through his department," he said.
He warned that it is "highly likely" that the North will launch a provocation against South Korea between January and March next year, aimed at diverting attention from internal dissatisfaction."