Pyongyang announced on December 12 the trial and execution of Jang Sung-taek, former vice chairman of the powerful National Defense Commission and uncle to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Although Kim has already purged hundreds of officials during his two year reign, Jang’s ouster is highly unusual, even by North Korean standards.
Jang is married to the sister of the late leader Kim Jong-il and it had been expected he would be safe from a purge until after her death. In the past, when members of the North Korean senior leadership strata were purged, they usually simply stopped appearing in North Korean media. Instead, the BBC and other media reports showed that Jang was first erased from existing official photos and videos in tactics reminiscent of the Stalin-era Soviet Union.
Jang was arrested during a special meeting of the leadership with the photos and lengthy list of his crimes promulgated to the North Korean public. That Jang was executed was also rare for someone in the inner circle of power.
While Kim is emulating the power politics of his father and grandfather, he has taken it to new levels of brutality. In addition to Jang — previously referred to as the “second most powerful man in North Korea,” Kim replaced both the minister of defense and chairman of the general staff. Clearly, no one is safe from Kim’s wrath.
According to South Korean media reports, Kim Chol, the vice minister of the army, was executed last year per Kim’s dictate to leave “no trace of him, not even his hair,” though it is not clear exactly how he was killed. Some reports suggest he was executed with a mortar round during the official mourning period after Kim Jong-il’s death.
Jang — the “despicable human scum who was worse than a dog” — was accused of plotting a coup to “overthrow the state [and] to grab the supreme power of our party and state.” Perhaps. But had Jang wanted to grab the ring of power he would have had more success immediately after Kim’s father’s death in December 2011, before his son acquired the six titles conferring power over the state, party, and military.
It is more likely that the accusation of treason — as well as the litany of his personal foibles of gambling, drugs, womanizing, pornography, and drinking — were to undermine Jang’s reputation and justify the execution.
The young Kim also used the purge to make Jang the scapegoat for North Korea’s economic problems. Jang was described as controlling all major economic fields of the country and accused of scheming “to drive the economy of the country and people’s living into an uncontrollable catastrophe.” Jang was then able to be blamed for the disastrous currency revaluation of 2009, poor construction in Pyongyang, selling off of the Rason economic zone and precious resources at low prices, and creating “a great confusion in financial management system of the state.”
So much for the political and economic reform that some experts predicted Kim would implement, as they had similarly predicted about his father. Jang’s accusation emphasized the “the unitary leadership (and) absolute authority” of Kim Jong Un.” The military court derided Jang’s “despicable true colors as (economic) reformist known to the outside world.” Jang’s “cunning and sinister means” were compared with the “strategic patience policy and waiting strategy of the U.S. and the south Korean puppet group of traitors.”
If there was any lingering naive doubt that Kim would be just as merciless as his father and grandfather, it died along with Jang. During his two years in power, he has escalated the subjugation of the populace. He has increased public executions, expanded the gulags for political prisoners, and increased government punishment for people caught with information from the outside world.
Earlier this year, Kim showed that he is willing to go even higher than his father in raising tension on the Korean Peninsula. Pyongyang threatened U.S. military bases in the wider region with nuclear attacks. He also warned of tactical attacks on South Korean targets. He defied U.N. Security Council resolutions by conducting nuclear and long-range missile launches and was credited by the official North Korean media as being the mastermind behind Pyongyang’s two deadly attacks on South Korea in 2010.
The United States should have no illusions about Kim. His government vows it will never abandon its nuclear weapons and Pyongyang continues to augment and refine its nuclear and missile arsenals. South Korea’s minister of defense believes Pyongyang’s missiles can already reach the continental United States. The North Korean threat — always high — has gotten worse under the young leader.
He is just as dangerous as his father — and less predictable.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of Bruce Klingner, Senior Research Fellow for Northeast Asia at The Heritage Foundation. He previously served 20 years with the CIA, where he was deputy division chief for Korea, responsible for the analysis of political, military, economic and leadership issues for the U.S. president and other senior policymakers.