The execution of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's uncle brought a swift and violent end to a man long considered the country's second most powerful. But while Jang Song Thaek is now gone, the fallout from his purge is not over.
The execution of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s uncle brought a swift and violent end to a man long considered the country’s second most powerful. But while Jang Song Thaek is now gone, the fallout from his purge is not over.
In a stunning reversal of the popular image of Jang as a mentor and father figure guiding young Kim Jong Un as he consolidated power, North Korea’s state-run media on Friday announced he had been executed and portrayed him as a morally corrupt traitor who saw the death of Kim’s father, Kim Jong Il, in December 2011 as an opportunity to make his own power play.
Experts who study the authoritarian country, which closely guards its internal workings from both outsiders and citizens, were divided on whether the sudden turn of events reflected turmoil within the highest levels of power or signaled that Kim Jong Un was consolidating his power in a decisive show of strength. Either way, the purge is an unsettling development for a world that is already wary of Kim’s unpredictability amid North Korea’s attempts to develop nuclear weapons.
“If he has to go as high as purging and then executing Jang, it tells you that everything’s not normal,” said Victor Cha, a former senior White House adviser on Asia.
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The first appearance of the new narrative came out just days ago, when North Korea accused Jang, 67, of corruption, womanizing, gambling and taking drugs. It said he’d been eliminated from all his posts. Friday’s allegations heaped on claims that he tried “to overthrow the state by all sorts of intrigues and despicable methods with a wild ambition to grab the supreme power of our party and state.”
“He dared not raise his head when Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il were alive,” it said, referring to the country’s first leader and his son. But after Kim Jong Il’s death, it claimed, Jang saw his chance to challenge Kim Jong Un and realize his “long-cherished goal, greed for power.”
The purge also could spread and bring down more people, Cha said. “When you take out Jang, you’re not taking out just one person — you’re taking out scores if not hundreds of other people in the system. It’s got to have some ripple effect.”
South Korean intelligence officials say two of Jang’s closest aides have already been executed last month.
Narushige Michishita, a security expert at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo, suggested that Jang’s removal shows “that Kim Jong Un has the guts to hold onto power, and this might have shown his will to power, his willingness to get rid of anything that stands in his way.”
One of the biggest opportunities for the world to see what may happen next will come on Dec. 17, which is the second anniversary of Kim Jong Il’s death. North Korea watchers will be closely following whether Jang’s wife, Kim Kyong Hui, the younger sister of Kim Jong Il, and other figures are present in the official ceremonies marking the day.
Jang’s removal leaves no clear No. 2 under Kim, whose inner circle now includes Vice Marshal Choe Ryong Hae, Premier Pak Pong Ju, and Kim Yong Nam, the ceremonial head of state.
News of Jang’s execution was trumpeted across the nation by North Korea’s state media — with unusually vitriolic outbursts on TV, radio and in the main newspaper — as a triumph of Kim Jong Un and the ruling party over a traitor “worse than a dog” who was bent on overthrowing the government.
Pyongyang residents crowded around newspapers posted at the capital’s main subway station to read the story. State media said Jang was tried for treason by a special military tribunal and executed Thursday.
“He’s like an enemy who dares to be crazy enough to take over power from our party and our leader,” said Pak Chang Gil, echoing the media’s official line. “He got what he deserved.”
That’s a long way from the popular perception that “Uncle Jang” was nurturing his nephew as a regent appointed by Kim Jong Il. Jang was seen prominently behind Kim Jong Un as he walked by his father’s hearse during his 2011 funeral. He was also a fixture at the new leader’s side as he toured the country.
The KCNA report was unusually specific in its accusations. It criticized Jang for not rising and applauding his nephew’s appointment to a senior position because Jang “thought that if Kim Jong Un’s base and system for leading the army were consolidated, this would lay a stumbling block in the way of grabbing the power.”
It stressed repeatedly that Jang had tried to assemble a faction of his own, suggesting the purging process could still be playing out.
Jang’s death could herald a “reign of terror,” including more purges, said Lim Eul Chul, a North Korea expert at South Korea’s Kyungnam University.
Another question mark is how the purge will impact North Korea’s relationship with its only major ally, China. Jang had been seen as the leading supporter of Chinese-style economic reforms and an important link between Pyongyang and Beijing. China has called Jang’s execution a domestic issue and has avoided further public comment.
North Korea has recently turned to attempts at diplomacy with South Korea and the United States. But tensions have remained high since Pyongyang’s threats in March and April, which included warnings that it would restart nuclear bomb fuel production.
Another resident of Pyongyang, Ri Chol Ho, said he did not believe Jang alone was deserving of the harshest punishment.
“For this group of traitors who were going to destroy our single-hearted unity, execution is too lenient,” he said. “They should be torn up and thrown into the rubbish bin of history.”
Klug reported from Seoul. Associated Press writers Hyung-jin Kim and Eun-young Jeong in Seoul and Ken Moritsugu in Tokyo contributed to this report.