SEOUL - North Korea has executed the powerful uncle of young leader Kim Jong Un, state media said on Friday, the biggest upheaval in years as the ruling dynasty sought to distance itself from responsibility for the isolated states's dire living standards.
Jang Song Thaek, considered the second most powerful man in the secretive country, was killed just days before the second anniversary of the death of Kim Jong Il, the father of North Korea's current ruler.
The execution came as Kim Jong Un - the third Kim to rule North Korea - began being portrayed in state media as the image of his father rather than his grandfather, Kim Il Sung, who is still revered as the founder of the nation.
Kim Jong Il was blamed by some for the 1990s famine that killed a million people.
North Korea's KCNA news agency released pictures of a handcuffed Jang being manhandled by guards and said he had been executed for trying to seize power and for driving the economy"into an uncontrollable catastrophe".
Jang was pictured in the ruling party's Rodong Sinmun newspaper without his Kim Il Sung loyalty badge on his lapel when he was led away, which would indicate his disloyalty to North Koreans who all wear lapel badges.
"Jang Song Thaek has been purged in a way that suggests Kim Jong Un wanted to make a point," Ruediger Frank, a North Korea expert, wrote in an article on Johns Hopkins University's US Korea Institute website 38 North.
North Korea has been run by the same family since 1948. Its economy, which was once larger than South Korea's, is now a fortieth the size of its prosperous neighbour. Its 24 million people regularly suffer food shortages, according to the United Nations.
The younger Kim has been credited in his country's media with presiding over a powerful military state as well as an economic revival.
The execution reflected "the brutality of the regime" and its "low regard for human life," said US President Barack Obama's press secretary, Jay Carney.
US intelligence has limited knowledge about the country's young leader, but a senior US official said of Kim: "Clearly he's still in charge."
At the same time, the Obama administration was in touch with China, the closest thing Pyongyang has to an ally, in seeking help to prevent any internal unheaval in North Korea from destabilizing the Korean peninsula, US officials said.