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Thursday, December 09, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
Kim Jong Il purges relative from power, paving way for sons
By Barbara Demick
North Korea watchers here had raised the name of 58-year-old Chang Sung Taek as someone the United States and South Korea might consider a more palatable leader than Kim.
The purge is one of several measures Kim has taken this year to consolidate his hold over what is, in effect, a hereditary dynasty. Among other important changes, North Korea reportedly has adopted a new criminal code that increases penalties for people who criticize the government or bring in banned books, videos or music from the outside.
North Korea specialists say such measures are not necessarily a sign of the secretive regime's weakness; on the contrary, they show that Kim can still mold the bureaucracy according to his whim.
"It leads you to believe that stability is not that big of a problem after all," said a Western diplomat, who asked not to be named.
South Korean intelligence officials testified to the legislature here Nov. 25 that they had confirmed rumors that Chang had been removed from public life. He is believed to be under house arrest, and dozens of his aides and relatives have been purged or demoted.
Chang, the husband of Kim's younger sister, Kim Kyong Hui, was well connected in North Korea's two most powerful institutions, the ruling Korean Workers' Party and the military. He held the obscure-sounding title of chief of the party's organization and guidance bureau, but he was believed to be second in command of the party behind Kim Jong Il.
Chang has two older brothers who, until recently, held top jobs in the army. One of them, Chang Song U, headed the army division charged with defending the capital, Pyongyang.
Chang Sung Taek "was one of the rare people who was in a position to take control of both the party and the military. And as a brother-in-law, he had Kim Jong Il's special trust," said Cheong Seong Chang, an academic who serves as an adviser to the South Korean government on North Korean matters.
Initial reports of Chang's purge surfaced in March. His downfall might have begun last year when Hwang Jang Yop, the highest-ranking North Korean to defect, testified to the South Korean legislature that Chang could be installed in Kim's place in the event of a coup d'état. Even more damning praise came from a South Korean magazine, which described Chang as favored by the United States.
In 2002, Chang led an economic delegation visiting Seoul and reportedly made a good impression on South Koreans, Cheong said.
Kim Jong Chul was recently named to the Workers' Party bureau in charge of propaganda and appears to be following the same gradual path to power as Kim Jong Il had when he was groomed to succeed his father, Kim Il Sung.
"Power is handed down slowly, bit by bit. It is not like handing down the throne," Cheong said.
Koh Young Hwan, a North Korea scholar at Dongguk University in Seoul, said, "Kim Jong Il isn't really in a position to name a successor because his own leadership isn't fully settled with the people. So I think what you are seeing are his efforts to reinforce his authoritarian power."
The changes in the North Korean criminal code call for a tightening of political controls, but other measures are said to promote privatization and free trade.
The code, adopted in April but just reported this week in South Korean media, also reduces from three years to two the prison terms for people who try to defect to China for economic reasons.
The recent removal of some Kim Jong Il portraits from public places in Pyongyang frequented by foreigners prompted speculation last month that the North Korean leader was losing his hold on power.
A consensus now appears to be emerging that any changes in the portraits were ordered by Kim long ago to soften the personality cult that is so frequently ridiculed by foreigners.
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