There’s been a big shakeup in North Korea:
Jang Song Taek, the brother-in-law of late Supreme Leader Kim Jong Il, the uncle of current leader Kim Jong Un, and a savvy politician who was thought to have been the second-most powerful man in North Korea, has been reportedly executed for planning a coup. Jang “is a traitor to the nation for all ages,” according to the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), the country’s main news agency, which released the news on the morning of Friday Dec. 13 Korea time.
The English-language article details, in almost Biblical prose, the devastation Jang allegedly wrought on North Korea. He did serious harm to the country’s youth by patronizing traitors, or “cat’s paws.” For Jang’s “unpardonable thrice-cursed treason,” people throughout the country “broke out into angry shouts,” hungering for justice, the article claims. And “every sentence” of the decision describing his crimes served as a “sledge-hammer blow brought down … on the head of Jang.”
Stephen Mihm hears echoes of Stalin:
It appears that despite his youth, Kim is pretty old-school: the shaming, purging and dispatch of Jang borrows classic tactics from any number of totalitarian dictators faced with threats to their power. But what made Kim’s purge especially retro was the news that Jang has been airbrushed out of existing photos and videos.
But Max Fisher calls the spectacle “unprecedented” in North Korea:
North Korea has had plenty of political purges in its history, but never like this; they’ve been done quietly, behind the scenes. But state media denounced Jang earlier this week, publicly condemning him and listing his alleged crimes. The entire front page of the official Rodong Sinmun newspaper was dedicated to Jang’s ouster on Monday; so was a special broadcast on North Korean state TV that showed troops arresting Jang in the middle of a politburo meeting. Turning this high-level political purge into such a national display is totally without precedent for North Korea. That may give us some clue as to what happened and why Kim would order his own uncle put to death.
Max thinks the most plausible reason is that Kim is consolidating power:
Kim came to power unexpectedly in late 2011, and after just a few short years in the country. He probably did not have much of a power base within the regime. The North Korean system has a lot of powerful people in it, and it’s probably not as simple for Kim as issuing orders and having everyone dutifully carry them out – particularly since so many senior regime officials are much older and more experienced than he is. What better way to consolidate power among those older and more experienced members of North Korea’s elite, then, than to scare the living daylights out of them?
Benjamin Habib calls the killing “an unusually frank admission of schisms within the North Korean elite”:
What is the genesis of these internal factional fractures? The past two years have been a period of rapid change in the North Korean economy. The accusations against Jang, published by Korean Central News Agency, point to his mismanagement of his economic opening portfolio as one of a number of reasons for his removal. Jang was a known champion of a Deng Xiaoping-style opening and reform of the North Korean economy, in opposition to a rival faction within the Ministry of State Security with greater commitment to nuclear weapons development and the military-based politics of the Songun model. Jang may therefore have been the loser in this institutional power struggle.
Ankit Panda looks to external factors:
Interestingly, Jang’s proximity to Beijing might have accelerated Kim’s decision to move forward with the purge. Jang was perhaps Beijing’s man in Pyongyang in many ways. Kim Jong-Un has yet to make a trip abroad (despite burgeoning invitations in Beijing). It remains to be seen what the longer term impact of Jang’s dismissal could be on relations across the border with North Korea’s bigger neighbor and only friend. If Kim Jong-Un takes steps to roll back the trajectory of economic reform such as the special economic zones for certain foreign investors, it would reinforce this line of reasoning.
China has responded cautiously:
As Zhu Feng, professor of international relations at Peking University, told the New York Times, Jang was “the man China counted on to move the economy in North Korea. This [Jang's dismissal] is a very ominous signal.” Chinese media have also relayed reports from South Korea that the North Korean leadership has begun exporting gold reserves to China. According to the reports, this could be a sign that North Korea is facing its most serious economic crisis since the country’s founding. While speculative, the reports do indicate a concern within China that there may be a crisis on the horizon in North Korea.
On other hand, an article in People’s Daily, reprinted by Sina News, scoffed at the idea that Jang’s ouster represented a break with China. Such a move would cost North Korea its only consistent source of political and economic support. “For Kim Jong Un,” the article said, “this would be a suicidal choice.”
Gordon Chang offers a tantalizing alternative take:
Why did Kim have Jang killed? It may have been personal. Jang introduced Kim to his eventual wife, Ri Sol Ju. According to a growing number of accounts, Jang also had an affair with her. Furthermore, there are reports that Jang and Ri were somehow involved in a sex tape. In any event, she has not been seen in public since October. Kim Kyong Hui, Kim’s aunt, supposedly approved the execution of her husband. Most of this narrative remains unconfirmed, but this storyline makes understandable Kim’s surprise – and unprecedented – decision to put to death a family member. Moreover, this narrative explains the charge against Jang of “womanizing.”
Chang adds, “Whether or not a personal feud has turned deadly, the regime may be unraveling”:
London’s Telegraph believes that the ailing Kim Kyong Hui may be the next regime figure to be purged. There is one report that five of Jang Song Thaek’s aides were executed with him – two were known to have been put to death in the middle of last month – and one Chinese-language news site maintains that “recently” two vice premiers have fled to China seeking asylum. In any event, Jang has dozens of allies among top regime officials, and, as Korea-watcher Bruce Bechtol notes, his patronage network started in Pyongyang and reached down to municipalities across the country. Because of Kim Jong Un’s brutality, Jang’s allies and friends know that they, along with their families, will be either executed or sent to concentration camps. Their choice now is either to run or fight. More blood will undoubtedly flow.
(Photo: TV monitors displayed at Yongsan electronic market in Seoul, South Korea, show the news of Jang Song-Thaek’s execution. By Han Myung-Hu/Getty Images)