What did Jang Song Taek do wrong?

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.

[CNN]

Kim aunt appears safe despite her husband’s execution

The aunt of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has been named to an ad-hoc state committee, the country’s official media reported, an indication that the execution of her husband and the country’s No. 2 has not immediately diminished her influence.

North-Korea-Kim-Kyong-huiThe fate of Kim Kyong Hui – a younger sister of late leader Kim Jong Il, Kim Jong Un’s father – was questioned after North Korea announced Friday that her husband, Jang Song Thaek, was executed for trying to overthrow the government.

Considered extremely close to her brother Kim Jong Il, Kim Kyong Hui has risen through the ranks in recent years, helping to groom Kim Jong Un as the country’s leader. The 67-year-old holds a slew of top posts, including ruling Workers’ Party secretary and four-star army general.

Some analysts said she may be spared her husband’s fate because she is directly related to the country’s founder, Kim Il Sung, grandfather of Kim Jong Un.

If her health condition allows it, Kim Kyong Hui is expected to join other top officials Tuesday and attend ceremonies marking the second anniversary of Kim Jong Il’s death, Hong said. Looking pale and gaunt lately in official appearances, Kim Kyong Hui’s public activities have been sharply reduced in recent months amid media reports that she suffers liver, heart and other ailments.

[AP]

North Korea’s Kim Jong-un continuing in his family tradition

Kim Jong-un apparently learned from his father’s brutal tactics.  The execution of his own uncle is the most important person Kim has ordered killed during his two-year tenure as supreme leader, but it’s not his first.

In August, Hyon Song-wol, a singer rumored to be Kim Jong Un’s ex-girlfriend was executed along with a dozen other popular music performers in front of their families, according to South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo. Hyon and the other members of the Unhasu Orchestra were sentenced to death on pornography charges. Kim’s wife Ri Sol-ju is also a previous member of the Unhasu Orchestra and is rumored to have requested Hyon’s death because she was jealous of the other woman’s popularity.

In one of Kim’s first shows of strength he ordered the execution of Kim Chol, a deputy defense minister, just weeks after coming to power following his father’s death in 2011. Chol was accused of drinking alcohol with a female military officer during the country’s three month mourning period for Kim Jong-il, in which his son strictly prohibited “singing or dancing, merrymaking or recreation,” according to reports.

According to Chosun Ilbo, Chol, several other officers were executed, fired at close range by mortars.

[ABC]

A lineage of murderous North Korean purges

Purging and killing suspected rivals or officers with wavering loyalty has been a trait of the Kim family dynasty along with unusual means of execution, which have included death by close range mortars.

In 1995, soon after taking power from his father, Kim Jong-il ordered the “purge of the Sixth Army Corps,” in which more than 20 officers accused of attempting to stage a coup were killed, according to South Korean news sources.

Kim Jong-il’s greatest purge occurred in 2001, during the so-called “march to progress” in which 1 million people were killed.  Hundreds of senior officials were removed from office and, with their families, sent to reeducation camps, while dozens others were executed, according to Chosun Ilbo citing South Korean intelligence reports.

As late as 2010, Kim Jong-il had ordered the purge of 100 senior officials, killing dozens of them, the last great purge of his regime.

Kim Jong Un’s grandfather, Kim il-Sung, the founder of Communist North Korea, so tightly controlled news coming out of the country that there is “comparatively little independent information about the regime’s purges, executions, and concentration and forced labor camps,” according to University of Hawaii historian RJ Rummel. Rummel estimates, that as many as 3.5 million people could have been murdered by the country’s first supreme leader from 1948 to the early 1990s.

[ABC]

Young leader cementing control or death throes of a teetering North Korean regime?

Depending on how you read the signs, the execution of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s uncle and formerly trusted regent, Jang Song Thaek, either shows a young leader further cementing his control, or the first death throes of a regime teetering on collapse.

For Jasper Kim, the founder of the Asia-Pacific Global Research Group, North Korea remains for analysts a “Rubik’s Cube that no one can solve.”

He said that North Korea, famous for tightly controlling the drip feed of real information coming out of the country, was now sending out violently mixed messages. “The recent release of the prisoner (Merrill Newman) and this execution couldn’t be more at odds; what this indicates is that it’s a chaotic situation in there,” he added. “What this points to in terms of regime change is that it’s a question of ‘when’ rather than ‘if.’

“Basically we are seeing the hardline faction reassert itself. For Kim Jong Un, Jang Song Thaek was the bridge between him and his father, and now he will have very little protection.”

For Andrei Lankov of Kookmin University in Seoul, the purge of Jang shows a young leader consolidating his grip on power.

“Some of the reasons are quite obvious and very transparent and many predicted that this was going to happen. … But people did not expect that it would happen in such a dramatic and theatrical manner.”

“It was clear from the first days of his rule that he would remove most of the people around him. Jang was particularly vulnerable exactly because he was initially appointed by late Kim Jong Il to be a regent — the chief adviser to the young ruler.

“But being a regent is a dangerous job. The king gets older and he feels more and more irritation and to hold more of a grudge against these noisy, strange, grumpy old men.

In the absence of any independently verifiable information, and in a regime where paranoid rhetoric is the normal register of almost all diplomatic language, any conjecture is likely to be as accurate as it is to be wide of the mark.

[CNN]

Uncertainty about North Korea after Jang execution

As the shock sinks in of North Korea’s extraordinary announcement of the execution of leader Kim Jong Un’s uncle and former protector, government officials and analysts are trying to decipher what the brutal move means.

Some saw the execution as a chilling demonstration of total control by Kim, the young leader who came to power two years ago. “I think what he’s telling people — the United States, South Korea, China, others — is that he is his own man, that you are going to have to deal with him,” said Philip Yun, executive director of the Ploughshares Fund, a nuclear nonproliferation group.

One big question is whether Kim acted out of strength, consolidating the power he has amassed over the past two years, or out of fear his uncle Jang Song Thaek was building a rival force inside the regime.

Suh Sang-ki, a lawmaker in South Korea’s governing Saenuri Party who sits on a parliamentary intelligence committee, said the decision to kill Jang suggests Kim’s power is weaker than that of his father. Suh said the execution appeared to be a pre-emptive effort to prevent any internal unrest over Jang’s ouster.

A U.S. official said, “Executing someone with Jang’s pedigree would be a dramatic statement that Kim Jong Un intends to be ruthless in consolidating his control.  The public airing of the power play under way — which is highly unusual — is probably sending shockwaves through North Korea’s leadership cadre.”

Few analysts interpreted the execution, which took place days after the North had said Jang had been dramatically removed from his government posts, as a healthy sign.

Analysts said North Korea was likely to continue with provocative moves. “I think there’s going to be a clear amount of brinksmanship,” said Yun of the Ploughshares Fund. “I think if we continue to wait for him to do things, he’s going to continue to shoot missiles, and he’ll probably at some point decide to test a nuclear weapon.”

Exactly what is going on inside the notoriously opaque North Korea regime remains as murky as ever.

[CNN]

Jang Song Thaek executed in North Korea

Jong Sang Thaek, the out-of-favor uncle of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has been executed, Korean Central News Agency reports.

“Traitor Jang Song Thaek Executed” blared the headline posted on the state-run news agency. The story said that a special military tribunal had been held Thursday against the “traitor for all ages,” who was accused of having attempted to overthrow the state “by all sorts of intrigues and despicable methods.”

It added, “All the crimes committed by the accused were proved in the course of hearing and were admitted by him.”

The KCNA report described Jang as “despicable human scum Jang, who was worse than a dog,” and accused him of having betrayed his party and leader.

KCNA’s report comes days after Jang Son Thaek was removed from his military post.

Jang Song Thaek, who was married to Kim’s aunt, served as vice chairman of North Korea’s top military body and had often been pictured beside Kim, who has ruled North Korea since his father’s death in 2011.

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Japan fears North Korean ‘Cultural Revolution’

The recent purge of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s once-powerful uncle could herald a period of radical upheaval comparable to China’s Cultural Revolution, Japanese defense minister Itsunori Onodera said on Thursday.

Pyongyang confirmed on Monday that Mr Jang Song Thaek, once seen as the power behind the throne, had dramatically fallen from grace, with state TV airing humiliating images of him being dragged away by uniformed officers.

“After seeing the footage of Mr Jang Song Thaek being arrested, it reminded me of scenes one might have seen during the era of China’s Cultural Revolution,” Mr Onodera said in a speech given at a private think tank in Tokyo.

“North Korea might become a more radical place in the future… that is my concern,” he said.

Like many countries, Japan has an awkward relationship with North Korea, which is complicated by Pyongyang’s perceived unwillingness to come clean about the extent to which Japanese nationals were kidnapped in the 1970s and 1980s.

[Straits Times]

Unease in China and India over ousting of Jang Song Thaek from North Korean power

nkorea-uncle jangAn extraordinary photo published by the official KCNA news agency on Monday, showing Jang being unceremoniously escorted from a Communist Party meeting by two armed guards, left no doubt that he had become persona non grata.

The recent, very public ouster of North Korea’s Jang has been noted with some concern in China, which is more or less Pyongyang’s only friend in the region. As significant as such a high-level shakeup might seem inside reclusive North Korea, The New York Times says “nowhere is the downfall more unnerving than in China.”

“Despite Chinese irritation with North Korea’s nuclear tests and other bellicose behavior, China had built a good relationship with Mr. Jang as the trusted adult who would monitor Mr. Kim, who is less than half his age.”

“While there is no indication that the Chinese intend to change their view, it seemed clear that even Beijing’s top leaders were surprised by Mr. Jang’s abrupt downfall.”

Time writes: “Jang was once seen as a regent to the young dictator [Kim Jong Un]. He also had strong patronage networks of his own, and within the ultraconservative halls of North Korean power was seen as something of a liberal. He visited Seoul in 2002 and has made several official trips to China, most recently in August 2012.”

He was also reportedly a supporter of Chinese-style economic reforms, according to The Associated Press.

India’s The Hindustan Times points out that Beijing’s unease with the changed dynamics at the top of the government in Pyongyang were reflected in an editorial in the state-run nationalist tabloid, the Global Times, on Tuesday. “As Jang was viewed as the second-most powerful figure and is North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un’s uncle, this announcement is considered a significant political event,” it said.

[NPR]

More on the purge of Kim Jong Un’s powerful uncle

North Korea officially announced that it has purged leader Kim Jong Un’s uncle, considered the country’s second most powerful official, accusing him of corruption, drug use, gambling, womanizing and generally leading a “dissolute and depraved life.”

Jang was described by state media as “abusing his power,” being “engrossed in irregularities and corruption,” and taking drugs and squandering money at casinos while undergoing medical treatment in a foreign country. The dispatch also said he had “improper relations with several women and was wined and dined at back parlors of deluxe restaurants.”

“Affected by the capitalist way of living, Jang committed irregularities and corruption and led a dissolute and depraved life,” it said.

Kim Jong Un will now rule without the relative long seen as his mentor as he consolidated power after the death of his father, Kim Jong Il, two years ago. Jang Song Thaek’s fall, detailed in a lengthy dispatch by state media, is the latest and most significant in a series of personnel reshuffles that Kim has conducted in an apparent effort to bolster his power.

Some analysts see the purge as a sign of Kim Jong Un’s growing confidence, but there has also been fear in Seoul that the removal of such an important part of the North’s government — seen by outsiders as the leading supporter of Chinese-style economic reforms — could create dangerous instability or lead to a miscalculation or attack on the South.

The decision to strip Jang of all posts and titles and expel him from the ruling Workers’ Party was made at a Political Bureau meeting of the party’s Central Committee on Sunday. The dispatch also indicated that the purge would extend to supporters of Jang, but did not provide details.

Opinion has been divided among analysts on what the purge may mean for the future of North Korea. Some believe it’s the result of a weakened Kim Jong Un fending off challengers, but others say it indicates the young leader’s growing strength.

“I believe it shows Kim Jong Un is firmly in control and confident enough to remove even the senior-most officials,” said Bruce Klingner, an Asia specialist at the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank in Washington. He added, however: “There is no reason to believe with this latest ouster that there will be a change in North Korean policy; that the Kim dynasty will suddenly turn around its bad behavior.”

[AP]