Jang Song Taek, who held numerous posts in the North Korean regime since the 1970s, was considered the country’s second-most powerful man. Then, the most powerful man, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, had his regent uncle executed.
The secretive nature of the North Korean regime makes it a challenge to deduce why Jang fell out of favor, though one expert sums it up this way: Kim Jong Un outgrew his guardian, and took him out. Those who agree with this hypothesis look at Jang’s trajectory throughout his decades in the regime.
At least twice before, Jang was purged from the leadership presumably for his too-big ambitions. Alexandre Mansourov, a North Korea expert at Johns Hopkins University, and other analysts say Jang had a big ego and was arrogant.
One of the more surprising developments following the execution of Jang was the lengthy indictment of his alleged crimes and his character that was published by the state media. For the regime to so openly explain why it executed him, it could hint at Jang truly having overstepped his bounds. Whatever Jang did to betray North Korea, it was so severe that his wife, the sister of Kim Jong Il, could not, or would not, help spare him.
To the outside world, the transition of power from Kim Jong Il to Kim Jong Un appeared smooth, but the revelations made in the indictment cast a different light on the change in power. The fall of Jang is evidence that there was resistance and tension behind the scenes during these past years, Mansourov said. It may turn out that Jang was building his own power base, growing his own cult of personality.
Jang may have underestimated the younger Kim, thinking he was a kid who could be manipulated, Mansourov said. In the end, Kim outgrew his regent.