SEOUL North Korea is engaged in a purge amounting to a "reign of terror" that has claimed the scalp of the country's second most powerful man and risks further damaging relations with the South, President Park Geun-hye said on Tuesday.
Park took office in Seoul earlier this year as North Korea conducted its third nuclear test, enraging world public opinion, and threatened to engulf its southern neighbour and its ally, the United States, in a war. The isolated state shelled a South Korean island in 2010 and is widely believed to have sunk a South Korean naval vessel in the same year.
"North Korea is currently carrying out a reign of terror, undertaking a large-scale purge in order to strengthen Kim Jong Un's power," Park told a cabinet meeting, part of which was broadcast on television.
"From now on, South-North Korea relations may become more unstable."
In her usual carefully scripted manner, the president called for vigilance to safeguard the wealthy South's achievements.
"In times like these, I think it is a nation's duty and politicians' job to keep people safe and free democracy strong," she told the meeting.
State media on Monday said Jang Song Thaek, the uncle of North Korean ruler Kim Jong Un, had been dismissed from his posts for "criminal acts" ranging from mismanagement, corruption and leading a "dissolute and depraved life".
Television in the tightly controlled and impoverished state showed him being frogmarched by uniformed personnel out of a meeting of the ruling Workers' Party.
Associates of Jang are believed to have been executed in the purge of a man once viewed as a regent for Kim Jong Un, aged about 30 and the third of his family dynasty to run the country.
South Korean officials discounted media reports that a close associate of Jang who managed his funds had requested asylum and was under the protection of South Korean officials in China.
No request for asylum, they said, had been received.
"I understand there was no request" Foreign Ministry spokesman Cho Tae-young told a briefing. The South's unification minister also told lawmakers no such application had been made.
South Korea's intelligence service last week said two of Jang's close entourage were executed for corruption and two of his relatives serving in embassies overseas had been recalled.
Although experts expect further reprisals against Jang's allies, no firm evidence has emerged of mass punishments. And they say China, North Korea's only ally, generally resists allowing defectors from the North to seek asylum elsewhere.
Members of the South's parliament, however, said last week that Kim Jong Un was resorting to fear to cement his leadership.
"Kim Jong Un is strengthening the reign of terror... Last year 17 people were public executed but this year there were about 40," Cho Won-jin told journalists after a briefing by the NIS intelligence agency. It was the NIS that first broke news last week that Jang had been dismissed.
Cho also said authorities were enforcing harsher rules on videos being imported illegally into North Korea.
Tension rose sharply on the Korean peninsula earlier this year after the United Nations imposed tough, new sanctions on Pyongyang in response to its latest nuclear test.
It eased as South and North Korea reopened the joint Kaesong factory park in September just north of the heavily militarised border, five months after the North abruptly shut it.
But despite the gesture to reopen the only remaining cooperation endeavour between North and South, Pyongyang again warned it would turn Seoul into a "sea of fire".
The North has repeatedly attacked Park, the daughter of Park Chung-hee, South Korea's long-serving dictator, who laid the foundations for the country's growth and prosperity.