Portrait of a family at war: Kim Jong Il purges relatives after alleged coup bid

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North Korea's Kim Jong Il has purged some of his closest relatives, accusing them of trying to seize power, reports in Beijing and Seoul said.

The purge began some months ago when Kim Jong Il put his brother-in-law, Chang Song-taek, under house arrest along with 80 other officials and their family members. Many have reportedly been sent to North Korea's Gulag in the largest purge in a decade.

Some diplomats believe the power struggles may be connected the pace and scope of economic reforms. Kim Jong Il is reportedly preparing to announce new changes to the political and economic system in late February when the country celebrates his birthday.

Kim Jong Il took over from his father 10 years ago and managed to hold on to power as the economy collapsed and an estimated three million perished from hunger and disease.

The regime is being supported largely with aid from China and South Korea as Kim has tried to trade his nuclear weapons programme with sweeping security guarantees from Washington.

But with the re-election of George W Bush, Kim Jong Il has little realistic chance of realising his hopes, and there are growing signs that even China is beginning to lose patience with him. Beijing has moved some 60,000 troops from the Shenyang garrison to the border in case it needs to intervene.

A trickle of reports coming out of North Korea paint a picture of a regime in its dying days, with leading members of the ruling family at each other's throats.

Government sources in Seoul said Austrian intelligence was reported to have foiled an attempt last month to assassinate Kim Jong-nam, the eldest son of Kim Jong Il, when he was visiting the country. Austria's Foreign Ministry has denied the story.

Another report circulating in Seoul says that in September Kim Jong Il's sister, Kim Kyong-hee, was seriously injured in a traffic accident, which is assumed to have been an attempt on her life.

In North Korea all members of the dynasty are considered to have the status of gods but Kim Kyong-hee and her husband, Chang Song-taek, were the most powerful couple after Kim Jong Il.

Kim Jong Il, who is 62 and known to be suffering from a liver disorder from years of heavy drinking, has been under pressure to name an heir. In the world's only hereditary Communist dictatorship, his eldest son, Kim Jong-nam, would normally be named the crown prince in keeping with the country's Confucian traditions.

Kim Jong-nam was primarily educated at a private boarding school in Geneva. A spoilt overweight figure who drinks heavily, he had earlier worked in the propaganda department and has taken a leading part in purges as a senior member of the North Korean equivalent to the KGB. He was born in 1979 or 1980 to Kim Jong Il's secret mistress, who died in Moscow a few years ago while suffering from depression.

Kim Jong-nam often travelled abroad, but in 2001 he was deported from Japan. He was pictured being led, like a prisoner, to a plane at Narita airport after he and his entourage were found carrying passports issued by the Dominican Republic. His father was furious and this seemed to have ruined his chances of being named as his successor, creating intense rivalry as different factions pushed their own candidates.

It seems that Chang Song-taek and his wife put forward their eldest son as the best candidate while others supported the two sons of another of Kim Jong Il's wives, the actress and singer Ko Yong-hee.

Before her death last August aged 51, Ko is rumoured to have had Kim Jong Il promise her that one of her two sons would be named as the heir apparent and, although this has not happened, a vicious power struggle seems under way.

Not long after the purge, Kim Jong Il paid an official visit to China and, around the time of his return, there was a huge train explosion at Ryonchon, close to the Chinese border. Official reports said it was an accident and that Kim's train had passed through hours before, but there are persistent rumours that he escaped by only 20 minutes. Whatever the truth, diplomatic sources say Kim has been treating the train explosion as an attempt to kill him. He has dismissed senior officials responsible for his safety, including the interior minister in charge of internal security, and ordered the confiscation of all mobile phones in May this year. A mobile phone is thought to have been used to set off the explosion.

A further puzzle has been Kim's decision to remove his portrait from a number of public places where foreign delegations are received.

Chinese sources also claim a growing flight of senior and middle-ranking officials and generals, with one report alleging as many as 130 generals have sought refuge in China.