Why Mr Jang was purged a second time in North Korea: Various theories persist about the disappearance of senior official Jang Song-taek

Most observers say he is a reformer who wants to push his country towards Chinese-style capitalism, something that may have antagonised Supreme Leader, Kim Jong-un

If he has been sidelined, then it is not for the first time.

In 2004, Jang Song-taek, a senior official within the North Korean administration of Kim Jong-Il, found himself out of favour. Whether it was something he had done or said or whether he was simply considered to have become too powerful was unclear, but suddenly he was no longer seen around.

Some reports suggested he was punished by house arrest in Pyongyang; others said he had been dispatched for more stern reeducation in the mines. Either way, he gradually worked his way back, recovering both favour and influence to the extent that when Kim Jong-il died in 2011, Jang was one of just a handful of people allowed to walk alongside the Supreme Leader's funeral cortege.

This time around, Jang has fallen out with the man he paced just a few steps behind at that funeral - Kim Jong-il's third and youngest son and his successor as Supreme Leader, Kim Jong-un. According to second-hand reports from South Korean intelligence, Jang has not been seen at public events for a number of weeks and has probably been sacked as vice-chairman of the powerful National Defence Commission (NDC).

Experts warn that little is transparent about the machinations inside North Korea. They warn too, that the source of the information, namely South Korean intelligence officials whose statements have been made public by South Korean members, have got things wrong before.

At the same time, few have expressed surprise at the developments. Others have said they had anticipated Jang could even have been ousted from the centre of power before now.

“It was something that was expected,” said Dr Andrei Lankov, a Russian expert on North Korea who teaches at Seoul's Kookmin University.

“What you have is an absolute monarchy and a young king who is very ambitious. And then you have regents who are supposed to support him... Being a regent is a politically difficult job because once the king becomes powerful enough he decides he does not need the older guard.”

Many believe that when Kim Jong-il fell ill and suffered a stroke in 2008, and Kim Jong-un, now aged 30, was selected as the surprise successor, Jang was brought back into the inner circle to act as a mentor to the young man set to take over the dynasty.

He was considered reliable, partly because he is married to Kim Jong-il's sister, Kyong Hui, who he met at university. In 2009, Jang was appointed to the NDC and the following year he was made vice-chairman of the senior military body, evidence that he had been forgiven.

Dr Lankov said the 67-year-old Jang, who is said to enjoy playing the accordion, may have been pushed aside now simply because he represents the old guard. It was very difficult, he said, for a leader aged just 30 to be surrounded by so many ageing officials.

Others believe Jang may have fallen out because he held differing opinions about the appropriate course for North Korea's economic development. Most observers say Jang is a reformer who wanted to push his country towards Chinese-style capitalism, something that may have antagonised Kim Jong-un.

“[Domestically] Jang is seen as a savvy, modern official, an advocate of a relatively more rapid and openly developmental North Korea. He is also seen as ruthless and very well versed in the utilisation of power in a violent ruling environment,” said Christopher Green, manager of international affairs at the Daily North Korea website. “Externally, he is widely viewed as the high regime official who is most keen on economic development.”

Mr Green said that when Jang visited Seoul in 2002, his importance was underscored by the fact that he was the only one who felt at liberty to drink into the night and suggest that other members of the delegation do the same; the Korean convention in these matters is that the oldest person guides the drinking, and he was not the oldest.

Meanwhile, when Jang visited China last year in a high-profile trip during which he met then Chinese President Hu Jintao, he was seen to be highly outspoken on promoting his own view on economic reform. He apparently did so without reference to the vision of Kim Jong-un, who is believed to believe in more limited development.

Jang could yet return again, said Mr Green. He had both access to large sums of money, which Kim Jong-un needs, and he also retained the family connection through his wife.

At the same time, the way things had been progressing was simply not sustainable.

“There are informed people who said as early as winter 2012 that Jang would surely be purged within a couple of years, because in an authoritarian dictatorship it is impossible for power to be shared,” added Mr Green. “Something has to give: either Jang overthrows Kim, or Kim sidelines Jang.”

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
The Ridiculous Six has been produced by Adam Sandler, who also stars in it
filmNew controversy after nine Native American actors walked off set
Life and Style
The original ZX Spectrum was simple to plug into your TV and get playing on
techThirty years on, the ZX Spectrum is back, after a fashion
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page

'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
14 best kids' hoodies

14 best kids' hoodies

Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

The acceptable face of the Emirates

Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk