TOKYO — A North Korean political party chief’s absence at an important state funeral sparked speculation Thursday about a leadership purge in the authoritarian regime’s top ranks.

South Korea and other nations watch for signs of such purges, since they sometimes accompany heightened threats of military action from Pyongyang, as they did soon after current leader Kim Jong Un took power in 2012 following the death of his father.

The United States and its allies have been eyeing North Korea more warily than usual in recent months, looking for indications that Kim intends to continue testing his growing nuclear weapons program.

North Korean Worker’s Party Secretary Choe Ryong-hae’s absence from a funeral Wednesday honoring a major Korean War hero — which included 170 invitees — quickly caught official attention in South Korea.

“Given the North’s track record, it is unusual that a North Korean official such as Choe was not on the list,” said South Korean Unification Ministry spokesman Jeong Joon-hee, according to a Voice of America report.

When a major official like Choe falls out of favor, North Korea generally cuts the official out of all documentary and news reports.

Pyongyang sent Choe to Beijing in September to attend China’s military parade commemorating the 70th anniversary of World War II’s end.

South Korean wire service Yonhap News reported at the time that Choe did not receive a one-on-one audience with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

In contrast, South Korean President Park Geun-hye visited China for three days and talked with Xi about Pyongyang’s nuclear program, among other subjects.

Reports on what happens in reclusive North Korea are generally speculative, given Pyongyang’s lack of transparency.

However, Yonhap’s reporting on Thursday indicated that Choe’s disappearance from public life may not be a harbinger of a violent purge.

Choe is now receiving “re-education” at Kim Il Sung Higher Party School, Yonhap quoted unidentified South Korean intelligence officials as saying Thursday.

The school is known as the top institution were party officials are trained — though none of the numerous unidentified South Korean officials could speculate on what “re-education” might mean in Choe’s case.

If accurate, Choe’s re-education would at least leave the door open for his return to power, which is more than can be said for some subjects of Kim Jong Un’s purges.

In 2013, Kim had his uncle and close adviser, Chang Song-thaek, convicted of treason and summarily executed.


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