PYONGYANG, North Korea – North Korea said today that it had executed Kim Jong Un’s uncle as a traitor for trying to seize supreme power, a stunning end for the leader’s former mentor, long considered the country’s No. 2.
In a sharp reversal of the popular image of Jang Song Thaek as a kindly uncle guiding leader Kim Jong Un as he consolidated power, the North’s official Korean Central News Agency indicated that Jang instead saw the death of Kim’s father, Kim Jong Il, in December 2011 as an opportunity to challenge his nephew and win power.
Just days ago, North Korea accused Jang of corruption, womanizing, gambling and taking drugs, and said he’d been “eliminated” from all his posts. But today’s allegations, 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.”
Pyongyang’s statement called him a “traitor to the nation for all ages,” “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 acknowledgement 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, other high-profile purges and a barrage of threats this spring, including vows of nuclear strikes against Washington and Seoul. 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.
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 last two years could indicate confidence, Victor Cha, a former 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.
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.