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.

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