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Money Seen As A Motive In Execution Of North Korea's No. 2

Before their split: North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, right, and his uncle, Jang Song Thaek, in February 2012. Earlier this month, Jang was executed.
Before their split: North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, right, and his uncle, Jang Song Thaek, in February 2012. Earlier this month, Jang was executed.

Initial suspicions focused on personal dislike and a desire to send a "don't mess with me" message.

Now there's a report from The New York Times that:

"The execution of the uncle of Kim Jong Un, North Korea's leader, had its roots in a firefight between forces loyal to Mr. Kim and those supporting the man who was supposed to be his regent, according to accounts that are being pieced together by South Korean and American officials. The clash was over who would profit from North Korea's most lucrative exports: coal, clams and crabs."

The officials tell the Times that the uncle — Jang Song Thaek — wouldn't release control over fishing grounds and that forces loyal to him had recently battled with "emaciated poorly trained North Korean forces" sent by Kim to take over those grounds.

Jang, as we reported, earlier this month was "dramatically and unceremoniously removed by armed guards from a Communist Party meeting in the capital, Pyongyang." He was accused of attempting to "overthrow the state" and was executed on Dec. 12.

According to the Times:

"What is known [about what happened] suggests that while Mr. Kim has consolidated control and eliminated a potential rival, it has been at a huge cost: The open warfare between the two factions has revealed a huge fracture inside the country's elite over who pockets the foreign currency — mostly Chinese renminbi — the country earns from the few nonnuclear exports its trading partners desire."

CNN adds that some of the details about the supposed showdown over business interests come from "what South Korea's main intelligence agency appeared to suggest Monday in comments relayed by a lawmaker." According to the news network:

"The head of the agency, Nam Jae Joon, played down the theory of a simple power struggle between Jang and Kim, said Jeong Chung Rae, a lawmaker from the United Democratic Party who attended the briefing.

"Based on the intelligence agency's analysis, Jang's aides in certain government agencies involved in business projects, including coal and trade, overstepped their authority, creating conflicts with other agencies, the lawmaker said.

"The agency believes Kim may have stepped and demanded that the disputes be resolved — an order Jang apparently declined to carry out, Jeong said.

"That decision may have cost Jang his life."

Meanwhile, South Korea's Yonhap News agency writes that lawmakers there were told Tuesday that Foreign Minister Yun Byung Se has "instructed South Korea's overseas diplomatic missions to be vigilant to prepare for any possible asylum bids by North Koreans following the bloody purge of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's uncle."

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Mark Memmott is NPR's supervising senior editor for Standards & Practices. In that role, he's a resource for NPR's journalists – helping them raise the right questions as they do their work and uphold the organization's standards.
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