SEOUL – North Korea’s deputy ambassador to UNESCO returned home Monday after being recalled as part of a purge prompted by the execution of the once-powerful uncle of leader Kim Jong-Un, a report said.
Jang Song-Thaek, once the North’s unofficial number two and Kim’s political mentor, was put to death on December 12 on an array of charges including treason and corruption.
The shock purge — staged in an unusually dramatic and public fashion in the isolated communist state — was the biggest political upheaval since the young ruler took power after the death of his father and the former leader, Kim Jong-Il, two years ago.
Seoul’s spy chief earlier this month said two of Jang’s associates had also been executed, while Pyongyang reportedly recalled some diplomats or trade officials overseas who were believed to have been close to Jang.
Hong Yong, the North’s deputy permanent delegate to UNESCO, and his wife were spotted at Beijing airport Monday before taking the flight to Pyongyang, South Korea’s Yonhap news agency said.
Hong, one of Jang’s associates, took the post only six months ago, it said, quoting a diplomatic source in Beijing.
Yonhap said earlier this month that Jang’s nephew and the North’s ambassador to Malaysia, Jang Yong-Chol, had been recalled.
It said last week the North’s ambassador to Sweden, Pak Kwang-Chol, and his wife had also been summoned back to Pyongyang.
Pak, who had taken the post in Sweden in late 2012, was seen at Beijing airport being escorted by North Korean officials before taking the flight to Pyongyang on Friday, Yonhap said.
Ryoo Kihl-Jae, South Korea’s unification minister in charge of cross-border affairs, told a parliamentary committee on Monday that the North has been purging officials close to the executed uncle.
“We are seeing signs that those who were deeply involved with Jang are being recalled and purged,” he said.
The purge however appears to be targeting a relatively small circle of officials, Ryoo said, rejecting speculation of a sweeping clear-out of party and military ranks.
“We do not see that it (the purge) is being carried out on a large scale, though it still needs to be seen to what direction it would develop,” he said.
The execution of Jang raised questions about political instability in the impoverished but nuclear-armed North.
Jang is believed to have played a key role in cementing the leadership of Jong-Un. But the 67-year-old’s growing political power and influence was increasingly resented by the young leader barely half his age, analysts say.
The Kim family has ruled the North for more than six decades through a pervasive personality cult. Those showing the slightest sign of dissent have been sent to prison camps or executed.