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(3rd LD) N.K. leader sacks chief of spy agency: Seoul

2017/02/03 15:27

(ATTN: REWRITES lead; ADDS more details, photo caption throughout)

SEOUL, Feb. 3 (Yonhap) -- North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has sacked the chief of the country's spy agency on suspected abuse of power and executed some of its officials following a surveillance conducted by the ruling party, South Korea's government said Friday.

Kim Won-hong, 72, was dismissed from the head of the Ministry of State Security in mid-January after the probe by the Workers' Party of Korea (WPK) found the agency had abused its authority, according to Seoul's unification ministry. His military rank was also demoted to major general from full general, it said.

The ministry said he was fired over the suspicion that the intelligence agency committed wrongdoings including human rights violations, abuse of power and corruption.

"North Korea('s leader) dismissed Kim, his key aide who implemented his reign of terror," Jeong Joon-hee, a ministry spokesman, said at a regular press briefing.

"Instability in the North Korean regime is likely to increase as the elite members may become agitated and the regime's control over ordinary North Koreans could weaken," he added.

North Korea's security ministry has powerful authority as it screens so-called reactionary elements in society, supervises political prisoners' camps and arrests those who attempt to flee the country.

Known as a close aide to the North's leader, Kim became the head of the spy agency in April 2012 after Kim Jong-un took office in late 2011.

He is also known to have spearheaded the move to execute Jang Song-thaek in December 2013, the once-powerful uncle of the North's young leader.

The latest surveillance was conducted by the WPK's organization and guidance department, which was also involved in Jang's execution.

A government official, asking not to be named, said that North Korea executed an unspecified number of the agency's officials in the wake of the probe.

"There is growing public discontent and fear over the leader's repressive rule. The dismissal appears to be aimed at passing the buck to the security ministry," he said. "It also seems to show that the leader cares for his people."

   The official said that the party will likely decide the level of punishment for Kim after the probe which is still under way.

The North's leader has been strengthening his so-called reign of terror by killing more than 100 military, party and government officials, including Jang and Hyon Yong-chol, a former defense chief who was put to death in 2015.

In a New Year's speech, the North's leader expressed rare regret over his inability to perform better, which analysts say is an attempt to paint himself as a caring leader.

"He is likely to conduct numerous purges and overhauls that can shift responsibility for poor past performances to bureaucrats this year," showed a report by the Institute for National Security Strategy.

North Korea was slapped with tougher international sanctions twice last year over its nuclear tests and missile launches. Squeezed by the sanctions, the regime is pressing its people to pay money to the regime, sparking growing complaints.

Experts said that the dismissal came as the regime's leader seeks to prevent any figure from wielding excessive power in a bid to maintain his one-man leadership. He uses purges and other punishments as tools to keep his officials in check.

Choe Ryong-hae, a ranking party official, was sent to a rural farm in November 2015 as punishment for his mishandling of a power plant project, but he was reinstated a few weeks later.

"Kim's case does not appear to be a purge, so I think that he could be reinstated after undergoing some re-education," said Cheong Seong-chang, a senior researcher at the Sejong Institute.

This file photo shows Kim Won-hong, the head of North Korea's Ministry of State Security. South Korea's unification ministry said on Feb. 3, 2017 that Kim was dismissed from the post in mid-January. (For Use Only in the Republic of Korea. No Redistribution) (Yonhap) This file photo shows Kim Won-hong, the head of North Korea's Ministry of State Security. South Korea's unification ministry said on Feb. 3, 2017 that Kim was dismissed from the post in mid-January. (For Use Only in the Republic of Korea. No Redistribution) (Yonhap)

sooyeon@yna.co.kr

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