Kim Jong Un’s Brutal North Korea: Where No Uncle Is Safe

The reported execution of Kim Jong Un's uncle, Jang Song Thaek, on grounds of treason, dispels any fleeting hopes that the young despot could be a reformer

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Kyodo / Reuters

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, flanked by his uncle, North Korean politician Jang Song Thaek, leaves a military parade on Feb. 16, 2012

North Korea said Friday that Jang Song Thaek, onetime regent to Kim Jong Un, has been executed for allegedly masterminding a military coup. In a blistering—and bizarre—dispatch, state news agency KCNA called Jang “despicable human scum” and “worse than a dog,” alleging he broke his nephew’s trust by plotting against him. Jang, 67, was killed Thursday, KCNA reported, immediately following his trial.

Jang’s downfall looked all but certain after he was arrested earlier this week in front of top party members for, among other things, the Kafkaesque crime of “dreaming different dreams.”  Given his advanced age and his close ties to the ruling family (Jang was married to Kim Jong Il’s sister), many thought he’d escape with his life—which, as far was we know, he didn’t. “People don’t want to believe that Kim, a 30-year-old, could do this,” says Daniel Pinkston, a Korea expert at the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank. “But he has.”

(MOREKim Jong Un’s Uncle Was ‘Despicable Human Scum,’ Says Pyongyang’s Propaganda Machine)

Indeed, young Kim keeps surprising. When his father, Kim Jong Il, died in 2011, many hoped the baby-faced heir would be the great reformer that would lead the country from half-starved Stalinist darkness, to the U.S.-friendly light.  These hopes were premised on thin stuff: The fact that he was educated in a Swiss boarding school and, as a child, admired the 1990s-era Chicago Bulls. Surely somebody so youthful and exposed to the West would turn their back on totalitarianism.

He hasn’t. The first two years of Kim’s tenure have seen a series of promotions, demotions and purges aimed at consolidating his grip on power. Four of the seven leaders who marched with young Kim alongside Kim Jong Il’s casket have since been ousted, and other, lower, figures purged from the party ranks. “It is pretty remarkable what he has to firmly establish control,” says Pinkston. “He is even better than his father at this—and his father was very good.”

The cult of the Kims seems to be going strong. Last spring, the country marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il Sung, grandfather to Kim Jong Un and the symbolic father of the nation, with a series of missile tests and a military parade. Next week, the country will mark the second anniversary of Kim Jong Il’s death and the rise his son. In a country where anniversaries are everything, Jang’s timely ouster sends a clear message to the populace: Kim is in control.

The timing of the purge does jibe well with the political calendar, says Adam Cathcart, a professor at the University of Leeds. Now that the country has been “riled up” by the public condemnation of Jang, the anniversary of Kim Jong Il’s death may provide a national “moment of catharsis.” Following the annual New Year’s address, Cathcart says, another nuclear test could be on the table as a way for Kim to show he is “in command of the state.”

It is too soon to know how Jang’s ouster will affect Pyongyang’s foreign affairs. Kim’s regime has publicly adopted an aggressive stance toward the outside world. In the last year, North Korea vowed to press ahead with the nuclear program that has made it a global pariah, threatened to rain fire on the United States and taunted South Korea’s first female president about the “venomous swish” of her skirt.

The latest news certainly won’t please the United States or South Korea. The U.S. State Department said Jang’s execution, if confirmed, was “another example of the extreme brutality of the North Korean regime.” Seoul warned of the possible military threat from Pyongyang. “I have seen in the past that the North usually curbs internal [agitation] through waging provocations externally,” said the South’s minister for unification,  Ryoo Kihl-jae, according to Yonhap news.

China is also watching closely. China and North Korea are old allies, but Beijing is frustrated with its longtime friend, believing that years of nuclear posturing have given the U.S. an excuse to bolster their presence in East Asia. Jang was considered something of China expert having traveled there on several official visits. He also backed the half-built joint economic zone near the Chinese city of Dandong.

Don’t expect China to speak up for old Jang, though. The last thing Beijing wants is destabilizing change in its backyard. “North Korean stability suits China’s interest,” read a recent headline in the Global Times, a party mouthpiece.  The piece blasted Chinese netizens for gossiping about instability in the North. According to the unsigned editorial, ordinary Chinese believe North Korea’s leader “has the ability to control the situation.”

That sentiment will do little to assure Korea watchers as they ponder what’s next on the peninsula. The purge has made clear that Kim is running things on his terms. What’s unsettling, is that we don’t know what, exactly, those terms might be.

MOREKim Jong Un’s Purge of His Uncle May Test Ties With China

89 comments
voyajitsu
voyajitsu

As I understand it, this move was actually a final move to consolidate power. What's interesting, however, is that Jang was well-liked by China, so they were not only surprised by the move, but also angered. I visited North Korea in July 2013 and wrote up a series on my experience over at http://voyajit.su/series/north-korea/.

sportzjunkman
sportzjunkman

Pretty scary abuse of power, this kid could certainly be dangerous in international negotiations.

borisklesko
borisklesko

i bet they always have to let him when at cards too!

Mauryan
Mauryan

On the other news, school shooting in Colorado has shocked all people in the free world. Barbarism does not seem to have borders.

columbare1
columbare1

I would think that anybody in Kim Jung Un's inner circle, would take note of the probability that any moment on a whim, Kim could and would have them arrested and summarily executed.  Also I would think events like what happened to uncle, would put the thought of putting a bullet in Kim's head ,might seem like a good idea.

jefforsythe9
jefforsythe9

Recently I viewed a documentary where a young N Korean man, who escaped to S Korea, told his story how he was born in a slave camp. At fourteen, he heard his mother and older brother discussing an escape and told on them. A few days later   he was escorted to the courtyard to witness his mother's and brother's execution. This is N Korea today. On the other hand, the Chinese Communist Party has treated its people exactly like this since 1949 and is still doing so.

People living in the West have not been allowed to know the truth concerning the brutal Chinese Communist Party. It is a blood-thirsty cult that has murdered over fifty million of its own people since 1949 and if it was not for the strength of the American military, it would have eliminated Western civilization years ago. But because of insatiable human greed the true nature of this evil Party has never been told to us in the West. Just keep shopping.

falcon269
falcon269

This is a firing that must make Donald Trump salivate!

downpour
downpour

This is why Governments should never be allowed to rule over the public. We must always be in charge. The public must decide what governments can and can't do. The recent behaviour of the US government, its military and agencies, have been totally unacceptable and undemocratic.

People like Snowden and Manning really are heroes. They are only guilty of telling the public about things which should never have been kept from us in the first place. The people who are determined to demonise these men are the ones who would turn the whole world into our own version of North Korea. We can't let that happen.

Rafael Dominador
Rafael Dominador

Whoah half hearted or half cooked clapping wow so flabbergasted, the whims of dictatorial n. Korean citizens no personal comments.

Clyde Dylan Ybañez
Clyde Dylan Ybañez

Could he be possibly be looking for an excuse to get rid of people who could hinder his goals? Not really defending his actions, it could be a possibility that he might be a reformer, but just needs to get rid of anyone who has the potential to stop him...

megliov
megliov

He was the man of the year in your magazine, you got a bad taste.

btt1943
btt1943

One would think that the power struggle in N Korea will continue, not forgetting that the fate of Kim's powerful aunt (Jang's wife) remains uncertain. Chances are she could still garner enough force to form a strong opposition to paranoiac Kim who seems to be bringing the nation to the brink of disaster. 


Rash and untamed young Kim may do something more drastic to tell the world he is in full charge, chaos would follow and the neighboring countries have to be more vigilant.

PeterDormaar1
PeterDormaar1

"half starved Stalinist darkness, to the U.S. friendly light." This statement is quite ethnocentric, as it implies that being "friendly" or conformable to the U.S. is inherently the "light" path. I'm not saying it's subjectively bad, all things considering, but it is quite a biased thing to say, and rather surprising to be seen in a newspaper.

OzarkGranny
OzarkGranny

 Just like Muslims killing Muslims.  I'm supposed to care, why?

himynameislax
himynameislax

may be person of the year will make it right.. send him to NK.

Realworldnonfantasyland
Realworldnonfantasyland

USA as Moral Police --- Look no different than North and South Korea on why the US isn't evil in being moral police. 

Dan Morales
Dan Morales

N korea's leader just killed 1 man while obama just killed 15 men,women,and children at a wedding with a drone strike

Josh Viggiani
Josh Viggiani

Hey now, let's hate all of our gvmts. equally, together :)

Brian Mcclain
Brian Mcclain

In a lot of ways, not so bad. This country is swayed by every special interest group's fanatical wishes. A partial list: Gay marriage (these A-holes don't get it) FEMA (people too dumb to buy insurance) Obamacare (people too irresponsible to buy insurance before they get sick) Gun control. ( I control mine just fine) Charity (I gave at the office-see FEMA) God (who's god? Which one?) Christmas ( oops. I said Christ) Pledge of allegiance Money (it says "god" on it)

Carles_Arch
Carles_Arch

Well, in some USA States, death penalty is still valid. I thought Obama could be a reformer too...

Alphonzo Turner
Alphonzo Turner

Why are people complaining about north korea . you people are retards pray for the people of north korea

Mat Richter
Mat Richter

we need laws like that in this country... like "driving with pet in your lap" and "taking 11 items to the 10 or less check out line". =)

DanBruce
DanBruce

Jang Song Thaek's last words were reportedly, "Well, I'll be a monkey's uncle!"

Karl
Karl

You put China on a sideline but noted South Korea and the USA will be unhappy about this. Given from what I picked up in the news yesterday, the Chinese are on the same page as us on Kim Young'un (mean pun intended) and maybe had more at stake, the dye job uncle was tight with Peking's inner circle, he was their inside source on Kim III. They were hoping North Korea would follow Peking's path. They don't want any change on that border, and capitalism has worked well at stabilizing China. As far as scaring capitals, I think everyone from Canberra to Manila to Tokyo to Honolulu's local authorities are casting a red eye toward the black hole in East Asia. I live in San Francisco, if we get blown up, half the US would just think God was doing his thing. So a lot of folks are worried about the little pig, I mean Caligula, I mean Kim Young'un.

Pam Irick
Pam Irick

And we're surprised about this because......?

zaglossus
zaglossus

And what does Ambassador Rodman have to say on this?

zaglossus
zaglossus

I really don't think this regime will last much longer. This Dear Leader III is just too immature.

Onumara Onyekachi
Onumara Onyekachi

Time and sensationalism...Big Uncle must have been romancing Uncle Sam and his capitalist brethren

Josh Parks
Josh Parks

Also old ladies in a field alone qualify too.

StephenReal
StephenReal

North Koreans should not cower to the messenger of fear. "The only thing they have to fear is fear itself." This is the moment to strike the child tyrant and end this dynastic reign of terror on the Korean peoples.

trevortrevors29
trevortrevors29

I missed the part where it says otherwise .. I've read articles on that strike - actually on this same site .. Even though the death of those innocent civilians is beyond horrific their deaths were not totally intentional .. Kim's uncle was absolutely intentional and meant to send a chilling message to the people of NK and the world ..

StephenDing
StephenDing

not sure how praying would help exactly