An undated file photo, released by North Korea’s Korean Central News Agency in June 2016, of Kim Won-hong, former state security minister. Picture: REUTERS/KCNA
An undated file photo, released by North Korea’s Korean Central News Agency in June 2016, of Kim Won-hong, former state security minister. Picture: REUTERS/KCNA

Seoul — North Korea has dismissed its minister of state security, a key aide to the reclusive state’s young leader, Kim Jong-un, South Korea said on Friday, in what a high-profile defector said would be another sign of a "crack in the elite" in Pyongyang if true.

Kim Won-hong was removed from office as head of the feared "bowibu", or secret police, in mid-January, apparently on charges of corruption, abuse of power and human rights abuses, Jeong Joon-hee, South Korea’s unification ministry spokesperson, said, confirming media reports.

Jeong did not say how the South knew of Kim’s ouster, but he said there could have been further dismissals in the North where the ruling Workers’ Party’s powerful organisation and guidance department was investigating the ministry of state security.

"There is always a possibility that purges continue as part of constantly strengthening power," he said, adding that punishment for Kim Won-hong could be more severe depending on the outcome of the investigation, but he had been dismissed and demoted from the rank of general to major-general.

Kim Jong-un became leader in 2011 after the death of his father, Kim Jong-il, and his consolidation of power has included purges and executions of top officials, according to South Korean officials. Last year, North Korea’s vice-premier for education was executed for not keeping his posture upright at a public event, South Korea said.

Thae Yong-ho, North Korea’s former deputy ambassador to London who has defected to the South, said he was not surprised by the news. "I cannot confirm if the reports are true or not, but this kind of power struggle is quite normal in North Korean history," he said. "Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un’s style of control is always one of collective surveillance that checks the power of each organisation."

"Kim Jong-un has killed too many high officials and there are a lot of complaints and dissent among the high elite because of it," Thae added. "If the demotion of Kim Won-hong is really true, then that’s another sign of a crack in the North Korean elite group."

It is difficult to independently verify news about top officials in the North, which has angered the West with a series of missile and nuclear weapons tests in defiance of UN resolutions and sanctions.

Some reports of executions and purges have proved inaccurate. North Korea rarely announces purges or executions, although state media confirmed the 2012 execution of Kim’s uncle, Jang Song-thaek, widely considered the country’s second most powerful leader, for factionalism and crimes damaging to the economy.

A former defence minister, Hyun Yong-chol, is also believed to have been executed in 2015 for treason, according to the South’s spy agency, which said he was killed with an anti-aircraft gun.

Impoverished North Korea and the rich, democratic South are technically still at war because their 1950-53 conflict ended in a truce, not a peace treaty. The North regularly threatens to destroy the South and its main ally, the US.

Reuters

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