N.Korea's Jang had lost influence before purge: US

WASHINGTON - The uncle of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un had been losing influence before he was executed in a shock purge last year, according to a Pentagon report released Wednesday.

The execution of Jang Song-Thaek as a "traitor" in December by the Pyongyang regime came as a surprise to outside governments but the report said his downfall "is unlikely to lead to major changes in defence policy or internal stability in the near term."

Although Jang was a four-star general he had little control over military matters and his main focus had been on attracting investment and foreign currency into the country, said the Pentagon's annual report to Congress on North Korea.

Jang "was believed to be a relatively pragmatic advisor to Kim Jong-Un, but his influence probably waned in 2013," the report said.

His public appearances with the North Korean leader dramatically dropped in 2013 compared to the previous year, it added.

Jang's absence "will most likely be felt in the economy" because he was in charge of a number of high-profile initiatives, "particularly with China," it said.

His "sudden and brutal purge" sent a clear message to the regime's elites that potential challenges to the leader "will not be tolerated."

Tensions between North and South Korea have eased somewhat of late and the two countries recently held the first reunion for more than three years of families divided by the Korean War.

But the report predicted Pyongyang eventually would resume a provocative stance to secure its interests and win diplomatic concessions.

"North Korea's stated intent to advance its nuclear programme and continue ballistic missile/space launch vehicle efforts implies that it will eventually return to coercive actions to achieve its goals in the future," it said.

The report added the regime has "a large, forward-deployed military that retains the capability to inflict serious damage" on South Korea, despite a shortage of resources and "aging hardware."

The report on the North comes a day after the Pentagon's updated global strategy document described the regime as a "growing, direct threat" to the United States due to its pursuit of ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons.

To counter the danger, the US military would maintain a robust presence in the region and keep up investments in missile defence systems, the strategic review said.