By Ju-min Park and Jack Kim
SEOUL (Reuters) - North Korea on Monday excoriated Jang Song Thaek, the uncle of leader Kim Jong Un, for what it described as a slew of criminal acts, confirming the spectacular downfall of the once second most powerful man in the reclusive state.
The sacking of Jang for mismanaging the economy, corruption, womanizing and drug-taking comes after South Korean media reports that one of his aides has sought asylum in South Korea.
The unidentified aide, who managed funds for Jang, was being protected by South Korean officials in a secret location in China, cable news network YTN and the Kyunghyang Shinmun newspaper said on Friday, citing sources familiar with the matter.
Jang was removed from all his posts and expelled from the ruling Workers' Party during a meeting of its politburo on Sunday, the North's official KCNA news agency said. Kim Jong Un attended and "guided" the meeting, it said.
North Korean state television showed a still photograph of Jang being hauled away by uniformed guards from a large conference hall as it reported on the politburo meeting.
Kim's uncle has also been airbrushed out of pictures and video footage and experts said his name was no longer searchable on the KCNA database.
"Jang and his followers committed criminal acts baffling imagination and they did tremendous harm to our party and revolution," KCNA said, without saying if Jang had been detained or charged with any crime.
The report also did not refer to Jang's aide, whose defection, if confirmed, would be the most serious for North Korea in 15 years.
The decision to remove Jang was widely reported in North Korea's media including on the front page of the official Rodong Sinmun newspaper on Monday, in contrast to the dismissal of officials in the past which were almost never reported.
The Rodong Sinmun carried a picture of what it said was the politburo meeting. Jang and Kim Kyong Hui, Jang's wife and aunt to the young leader, were among 17 politburo members. Neither could be seen in the photo.
JANG'S WIFE NOT IN TROUBLE
But Kim's aunt, the daughter of the North's founding leader Kim Il Sung, was not in trouble, a source with close ties to Pyongyang told Reuters.
Last week a South Korean official said Jang was likely alive and in no immediate physical danger, as was his wife.
South Korea's National Intelligence Service last week said it believed Jang had been relieved of his posts in November. It also said two of Jang's close associates were executed recently for corruption.
The sacking means Pyongyang is undergoing its biggest leadership upheaval since the death in 2011 of former leader Kim Jong Il, the younger Kim's father.
Among Jang's senior party and military posts, he was vice chairman of the country's top military body, the National Defence Commission.
Jang had close ties to China and visited Beijing in 2012 on behalf of Kim. He was also head of the North Korean side of a joint project managing a special economic zone with Beijing.
KCNA listed a series of reasons why Jang was dismissed, including mismanagement of the country's financial system, corruption, womanising and abusing alcohol and drugs.
"Jang pretended to uphold the party and leader but was engrossed in such factional acts (such) as dreaming different dreams and involving himself in double-dealing behind the scene," KCNA said.
"Affected by the capitalist way of living, Jang committed irregularities and corruption and led a dissolute and depraved life."
Experts say Jang's removal will help the younger Kim consolidate his power base with a group of younger aides. Until he was fired, Jang was widely considered to be working to ensure his nephew firmly established his grip on power in the past two years.
NOT SO LUCKY THIS TIME?
Jang had been a prominent fixture in many of the reports and photographs of Kim Jong Un's public activities, but his appearances have tapered off sharply this year and he has not been since in official media since early November.
He has survived previous purges and official displeasure, thanks largely to his sometimes tempestuous marriage to Kim Kyong Hui, but this time was different, said Jeung Young-tae, an expert at the Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul.
"Jang is gone and purged. In North Korea, there can be no two suns," Jeung said.
YTN said Jang's aide fled to China in late September or early October and that Jang could have been sacked because of this. It said the aide had knowledge of funds belonging to the younger Kim and Kim Jong Il.
South Korea's National Intelligence Service had no knowledge of the defection, lawmakers said on Friday after they were briefed by the head of the spy agency.
China's Foreign Ministry said it had noted the reports, but did "not understand the situation". U.S. national security officials said the United States was aware of the reports but could not substantiate them.
About 25,000 North Koreans have defected to the South but few of them were highly placed in Pyongyang.
The highest-profile defection was Hwang Jang Yop, a Worker's Party ideologue who was the architect of the Juche (self-reliance) ideology of North Korea. He sought asylum in the South in 1997.
(Additional reporting by Benjamin Lim in BEIJING; Editing by Dean Yates and Nick Macfie)