The sudden execution of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s uncle has raised fears that the shocking killing is not the end of a violent political purge but simply the beginning.
Jang Song Thaek was executed shortly after a special military trial found him guilty of trying to overthrow the state. South Korean media reported he was killed by machine gun.
In a remarkable reversal of Jang Song Thaek’s popular image as mentor and father-figure guiding young Kim, North Korea’s state-run media now say he was 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 move for power.
Among the “crimes” that were listed as justification for Jang’s brutal fate was the accusation that he had clapped only “halfheartedly” when his nephew was elected to a military post.
News of his execution was trumpeted across the nation by state media – with unusually vitriolic outbursts on TV, radio and in the main newspaper – as a triumph for Jang’s nephew Kim and the ruling party over a traitor “worse than a dog” who had been bent on overthrowing the government.
The first appearance of the new narrative on Jang, 67, came only days ago, when North Korea accused him of corruption, womanising, gambling and taking drugs. It said he had been “eliminated” from all his posts.
The latest allegations heaped on further 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”.
The official statement went on: “He dared not raise his head when Kim Il Sung [the country’s first leader] and Kim Jong Il were alive.” But after Kim Jong Il’s death, it said, Jang saw his chance to challenge his son.
Experts on the authoritarian country, which closely shields its internal workings from both outsiders and its own people, were divided on whether the sudden turn of events reflected turmoil at the highest levels of power or signalled that Kim 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,” Victor Cha, a former senior White House adviser on Asia, 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,” he said.
Narushige Michishita, a security expert at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo, suggested Jang’s removal showed “Kim Jong Un has the guts to hold on to power, and this might have shown his willingness to get rid of anything that stands in his way”.
One of the biggest opportunities for the world to see what might happen next will come on Tuesday, 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, is present at the official ceremonies.
Jang’s removal leaves no clear deputy under Kim. There is also the question of how the purge will affect North Korea’s relationship with its only major ally, China. Jang was seen as the leading supporter of Chinese-style economic reforms and an important link between Pyongyang and Beijing.
The official report was unusually specific in its accusations. It criticised Jang for not rising and applauding his nephew’s appointment to a senior post because he “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”.
South Korean intelligence officials say two of Jang’s closest aides were executed last month.
In Pyongyang, locals crowded around newspapers posted at the main station to read the story. State media said Jang was tried for treason by a special military tribunal and executed.
Pak Chang Gil, echoing the media’s official line, said: “He’s like an enemy who dares to be crazy enough to take over power from our party and our leader. He got what he deserved.”
That is a long way from the popular perception that “Uncle Jang” had been nurturing his nephew as a regent appointed by Kim Jong Il – he was seen prominently behind Kim Jong Un as he walked beside his father’s hearse at his 2011 funeral.
Another Pyongyang resident, 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.”
In Britain, Foreign Office minister Hugo Swire said: “We are deeply concerned. to learn of the execution. This is another example of the brutality of the North Korean government.”