North Korea execution: Will mass purges follow?

Kim Jong-un's powerful uncle was accused of plotting a coup before he was put to death, raising the possibility of a further purge deep into the ranks of the military and the party.

Lee Jin-man/AP
People watch a live TV news program showing that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's uncle Jang Song-thaek (second r.) is escorted by military officers during a trial in Pyongyang, North Korea, Thursday, Dec. 12, 2013, at the Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea, Friday, Dec. 13, 2013.

The execution of the man once perceived as North Korea's most influential figure may portend a growing purge of critics of the shaky rule of Kim Jong-un.

A 2,740-word statement by Pyongyang’s Korean Central News Agency on the anti-state crimes of Jang Song-thaek may indicate as much about the regime’s insecurity, in the view of many analysts, as it does about Mr. Kim’s ability to consolidate his power since the death of his long-ruling father, Kim Jong-il, on Dec. 17, 2011.

“They are afraid of any possible reaction by the forces of Jang,” says Kim Tae-woo, a North Korea military specialist formerly with the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses. “More executions are inevitable.” Jang is believed to have been executed by a firing squad.

Although Kim Jong-un “outwardly is in control,” says Mr. Kim, the statement on Mr. Jang’s trial by the military tribunal that ordered his death makes clear the regime’s fear that Jang – once vice chairman of the powerful national defense commission and a member of the politburo of the Workers’ Party – was plotting a coup d’etat with the support of his own group within the armed forces and Workers’ Party.

“I was going to stage the coup by using army officers who had close ties with me or by mobilizing armed forces under the control of my confidants,” the statement, in English, quotes Jang as saying. The quotes, which the tribunal presumably wrote under his name regardless of whether or not he actually uttered them, make Jang a scapegoat for failures that have brought the economy close to collapse.

“I thought the army might join in the coup if the living of the people and service personnel further deteriorate,” Jang is quoted as saying. 

The devastating denunciation of Jang raises the possibility of a purge going deep into the ranks of both the armed forces and the party.

Jang’s execution “may be to send a message to others internally and externally that there will be no challenge” to Kim’s rule, says Victor Cha, formerly Asia director at the National Security Council during the administration of President George W. Bush, but Mr. Cha warns that such an extreme step is “risky” in view of Jang’s ties throughout the ruling structure.            

Kim “has purged leaders in both the party and the military,” says Cha, now senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, in an email. “So if he is consolidating power, then without party and military, how will he do that?”            

Fall from great heights

The most stunning aspect of the execution may be that Jang was widely viewed as de facto regent from the time that Kim Jong-il fell ill in August 2008 and was unable to govern as effectively as before. After a French doctor, flown in from Paris to care for him, warned that time was running out for him, Mr. Kim selected Kim Jong-un, the youngest of his three sons, as his successor.

Jang, married to Kim Jong-il's younger sister, Kim Kyong-hui, emerged as the power behind the throne, advising Kim Jong-un, in his 20s, who had no experience in the government or the party. Jang seemed to have gained in power after Kim Jong-il's death, often accompanying the young "supreme leader" on visits to military units, factories, and farms, and this year adding a new title - chairman of a newly formed sports and cultural commission that seemed close to the heart of Kim Jong-un.

Kim's aunt, who has been reported as extremely ill, is not personally believed to  be in danger and may have raised no objections to the execution of her husband, from whom she has long been separated. Kim Jong-il before he died made both his brother-in-law and sister four-star generals, though neither had military experience.

Jang, who met his future wife at Kim Il-Sung University before they both went to study in Moscow, rose through party and government ranks as an astute bureaucrat but was banished to a post in the countryside from 2003 to 2006, possibly for having pressed for economic reforms that Kim Jong-il did not favor. Today's statement on his trial indicates that economic issues were one reason for his downfall.

Jang is quoted as saying that he intended to "become premier when the economy goes totally bankrupt and the state is on the verge of collapse." Then, according to the KCNA account, Jang believed, "If I solve the problem of people's living at a certain level by spending enormous amounts of funds," he could "succeed in the coup in a smooth way."

The lengths to which North Korean authorities are going to excoriate Jang, outlining his crimes in such detail, has some observers wondering if the North might be on the verge of a nationwide purge that could cost the lives of thousands of people.

Jang's followers are at risk, as well as those the regime simply distrusts.

“They try to blame Jang for everything,” says Choi Jin-wook, North Korea expert at the Korea Institute of National Unification. “He’s anti-party, anti-state, anti-everything. There will be a lot of purges.”

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