PYONGYANG, North Korea — North Korea said Friday that Jang Song Thaek, the uncle and presumed mentor of its leader, Kim Jong Un, was executed for plotting a military coup.
The announcement was a highly unusual admission of instability from the reclusive, nuclear-armed country, which normally cloaks any signs of disloyalty to the Kim dynasty that has ruled since the country’s founding.
It was the first time in recent decades that the North revealed a purported attempt to overthrow its leadership, analysts said, and the first announced execution of a member of the ruling family.
Calling him a “traitor” and “worse than a dog,” the state-run Korean Central News Agency said Jang, 67, was executed Thursday, immediately after he was convicted of treason in a special military court.
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“He lost his mind due to his greed for power,” the agency reported. “He persistently plotted to spread his evil design into the military, believing that he could overthrow the leadership if he could mobilize the military.”
North Korea also released a photo of Jang standing at the military court, with his hands bound. Two State Security agents in military uniforms held his arms while one pressed the back of Jang’s neck so he would bow before the tribunal. The report from the state news agency did not say how Jang was executed. The North usually executes criminals by a firing squad.
Jang, believed to have been the second-most powerful man in the country, was the most prominent North Korean purged and executed under Kim, who South Korean officials said was resorting to “a reign of terror” in an attempt to consolidate his power. Jang was the husband of Kim Kyong Hui, a sister of Kim Jong Il, the late North Korean leader and Kim Jong Un’s father.
The wife’s fate was unknown, although analysts say it would be unlikely for Kim Jong Un to harm a blood relative. Other relatives have been stripped of their posts in the past, but their fates were not clear.
It was a reversal of the popular image of Jang Song Thaek as a kindly uncle guiding leader Kim Jong Un as he consolidated power.
Days ago, North Korea accused Jang of corruption, womanizing, gambling and taking drugs, and said he’d been “eliminated” from all his posts. But Friday’s accusations, which couldn’t be independently confirmed, were linked to a claim 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.”
The statement called him “worse than a dog” and “despicable human scum,” language often reserved in state propaganda for South Korean leaders.
Some analysts see the public pillorying of such a senior official, and one related to the leader, as a sign of Kim Jong Un coming into his own, the final consolidation of power that began with his father’s death. But others see signs of dangerous instability and a rare acknowledgment that behind the scenes, Kim Jong Un’s rise has not been as smooth as previously thought.
During his two years in power, Kim Jong Un has overseen nuclear and missile tests and a barrage of threats this spring, including vows of nuclear strikes against the United States and South Korea. In contrast, his father, Kim Jong Il, took a much lower public profile when he rose to power after the death of his father, Kim Il Sung, in 1994.
It’s not clear what Kim Jong Un’s very public approach to leadership says about the future of the country. Some see swift and ruthless attempts to bolster Kim’s power and show strength to his people and the world. There are fears in Seoul, however, that the removal of Jang could even lead to attack on the South.
There are also questions about what the purge means for 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.
Although the high-level purges over the past two years could indicate confidence, Victor Cha, a former senior White House adviser on Asia, said he sees signs of “a lot of churn in the system.”
“If he has to go as high as purging and then executing Jang, it tells you that everything’s not normal in the system,” said Cha, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank in Washington. “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.”
Jang’s purge probably marks the final step of Kim taking full power, said Ken Gause, a North Korea expert at the Alexandria, Va.-based CNA analysis organization. But it could also backfire, particularly if other top-level officials feel cornered.
Material from The Washington Post is included in this report.