The young North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un, learned from the most ruthless and long-lasting of modern dictators. His uncle Jang Song Thaek, publicly humiliated during a meeting of the party’s Central Committee as two uniformed soldiers grabbed Jang — until recently the country’s second most powerful man — was then taken away and accused of betraying Kim and the revolution.
Just a few days later, the North Korea government-controlled Korean Central News Agency reported that Jang had been executed for betraying the regime: “Despicable human scum Jang, who was worse than a dog, perpetrated thrice-cursed acts of treachery in betrayal of such profound trust and warmest paternal love shown by the party and the leader for him.”
These were amongst the stunning ledger of charges, and one that makes no effort to conceal there is a power struggle in North Korea. Tellingly, the accusations speak of a Jang Song Thaek “group,” which suggests the purge is far from over.
Jang is being erased from the records. The man who stood at Kim’s side when his father died is being Photoshopped out of existence. All mentions of him — except for the condemnations — are disappearing from the website of the Korean Central News Agency. And every photograph is now suddenly, and not-so-mysteriously, free of his image. He has even been deleted from a recent documentary about Kim Jong Un.
The experience from Saddam’s Iraq suggests that a reign of fear among the powerful serves only to entrench the harshest policies. High-ranking officials, worried about appearing weak or disloyal, will be more reluctant to suggest reforms that loosen the regime’s grip.
Kim is consolidating power, building his own inner circle of trustworthy loyalists and daring anyone to defy him. The young heir who rose to power two years ago under the protection of an experienced uncle is sending notice that he is not a child any more. The dictator is all grown up and settling in for a long time in power.