SEOUL, South Korea — The execution of the uncle of North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un, had its roots in a firefight along the country’s southwestern coast in September over who would profit from North Korea’s most lucrative exports — clams, crabs and coal — according to accounts being pieced together by South Korean and U.S. officials.
North Korean military forces were deployed to retake control of one of the sources of those exports, the seafood farms that Jang Song Thaek, the uncle of the country’s untested, 30-year-old leader, had seized from the military. In the battle for control of the farms, the emaciated, poorly trained North Korean forces “were beaten — very badly — by Uncle Jang’s loyalists,” according to one official.
The rout of his forces appears to have been the final straw for Mr. Kim, who saw his 67-year-old uncle as a threat to his authority over the military and, just as important, to his own family’s dwindling sources of revenue. Eventually, at Mr. Kim’s order, the North Korean military came back with a larger force and prevailed. Soon, Jang’s two top lieutenants were executed.
The two men died in front of a firing squad. But instead of rifles, the squad used anti-aircraft machine guns, a form of execution that according to the Chosun Ilbo, one of South Korea’s largest newspapers, was similar to one used against some North Korean artists in August. Days later, Jang himself was publicly denounced, tried and executed, by more traditional means.
Given the opaqueness of North Korea’s inner circle, many details of the struggle between Mr. Kim and his uncle remain murky. But what is known 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 huge fracture inside the country’s elite over who pockets the foreign currency — mostly Chinese yuan — the country earns from the few non-nuclear exports its trading partners desire.
Only a few months ago, Jang was believed to be the second most powerful man in North Korea. In fact, U.S. intelligence agencies had reported to the White House and the State Department in late 2011 that he could well be running the country behind the scenes — and might edge out his inexperienced nephew for control. In part that was based on his deep relationship with top officials in China, as well as his extensive business connections there.
His highly unusual public humiliation and execution Dec. 12 set off widespread speculation about the possibility of a power struggle within the secretive regime. But a more complex, nuanced story has emerged in recent days.
During a closed-door meeting Monday of the South Korean National Assembly’s intelligence committee, Nam Jae-joon, director of the National Intelligence Service, disputed Pyongyang’s assertion that Jang had tried to usurp his nephew’s power. Rather, he said, Jang and his associates had provoked the enmity of rivals within the North’s elite by dominating lucrative business deals, starting with the coal badly needed by China, the North’s main trading partner.
For years, profits from fish farming operations, along with output from munitions factories and trading firms, went to the North Korean military, helping it feed its troops and enabling top officers to send cash gifts to the Kim family. South Korea was a major market for the North’s mushrooms, clams, crabs, abalones and sea cucumbers until the South cut off trade with the North after the 2010 sinking of a South Korean navy ship, forcing the North’s military to rely on the Chinese market.
But when Mr. Kim succeeded his late father two years ago, he took away some military fishing and trading rights and handed them to his Cabinet. Jang was believed to have been a leading proponent of curtailing the military’s economic power.
Jang appears to have consolidated many of those trading rights under his own control — meaning profits from the coal, crabs and clams went into his accounts, or those of state institutions under his control.
But this fall, long-brewing tensions that arrangement created broke into the open. Radio Free Asia, in a report last week that cited anonymous North Korean officials, reported that Kim Jong Un saw North Korean soldiers malnourished during his recent visits to islands near the disputed western sea border with the South. They say he ordered Jang to hand back to the military a nearby seafood farm operation.
According to accounts assembled by South Korean and U.S. officials, Jang resisted.