PYONGYANG/SEOUL – North Korea announced Friday it had executed Kim Jong Un’s uncle as a traitor for trying to seize supreme power, a stunning end for the leader’s former mentor, who was long considered the country’s No. 2 official.
In a sharp reversal of the long-held popular image of Jang Song Thaek as a kindly uncle guiding Kim as he consolidated power, the official Korean Central News Agency indicated that Jang instead viewed the death of former leader Kim Jong Il in December 2011 as an opportunity to challenge the younger Kim and win power.
Jang was executed Thursday shortly after a special military trial, KCNA reported, after committing such a “hideous crime as attempting to overthrow the state by all sorts of intrigues and despicable methods with a wild ambition to grab the supreme power of our party and state.”
In a viciously worded attack, the regime accused Jang of attempting to stand in the way of Kim Jong Un’s succession. Jang let in “undesirable and alien elements” to a department of the party’s crucial Central Committee in a bid to “rally a group of reactionaries to be used by him for toppling the leadership of the party and state.”
The report accused Jang of betraying the trust of both Kim and his father, Kim Jong Il, saying Jang had received “deeper trust” from the younger leader in particular. It called him a “traitor to the nation for all ages” who was “despicable human scum” and “worse than a dog.”
“He revealed his true picture as a traitor of all ages, saying that the coup was aimed at the supreme leader” Kim Jong Un, KCNA said. “The death sentence was executed immediately.”
The unusually detailed announcement came only days after North Korea said it had “eliminated” Jang from all his posts. Despite the strong language and allegations in the announcement Monday of Jang’s fall, there had been no sign in North Korean media of an imminent execution.
Kim has overseen other high-profile purges since taking over after the death of his father two years ago. But none of the purges have been as public — or as close to home — as the downfall of Jang.
Analysts said a widespread purge was likely to be carried out against those associated with Jang, especially those at the Central Committee’s administrative department he had headed.
During the court hearing, Jang said he attempted to stage a coup d’etat by mobilizing his associates in the military, according to KCNA. “I attempted to stir up complaints among the people and the military that even as the country’s economic situation and people’s livelihood are in dire situation, the current regime fails to deal with it,” Jang was quoted as saying at the military court.
The court found him guilty of attempting to overthrow the state in breach of the Criminal Law and handed out a death sentence to punish him sternly “in the name of revolution and the people.”
Analysts say the 67-year-old’s power and influence had become increasingly resented by his nephew, who is aged around 30. They say Kim has acted swiftly and ruthlessly to bolster his own power and show strength.
But there are fears in Seoul that the removal of Jang and his followers — the biggest political upheaval since Kim took power — may cause significant instability even in the world’s most tightly controlled nation and could lead to a miscalculation or even attack on South Korea. Jang had been seen by outsiders as the leading supporter of Chinese-style economic reforms and an important link between Pyongyang and Beijing.
In Seoul, top presidential security and government ministers began an unscheduled meeting Friday to discuss Jang’s execution and its aftermath, according to the presidential Blue House.
South Korean President Park Geun-hye on Tuesday had accused Kim of resorting to extreme violence to cement his leadership, telling a Cabinet meeting, “North Korea is now engaged in a reign of terror while carrying out a massive purge to consolidate the power of Kim Jong Un.”
During his two years in power, Kim has overseen nuclear and missile tests, other high-profile purges and a barrage of threats this spring, including vows of nuclear strikes against Washington and Seoul. Kim Jong Il took a much lower public profile when he rose to power after the death of his father, Kim Il Sung, in 1994.
Although the high-level purges could indicate confidence, Victor Cha, a former senior White House adviser on Asia, said he sees signs of “a lot of churn in the system.”
“If he has to go as high as purging and then executing Jang, it tells you that everything’s not normal in the system,” said Cha, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank in Washington. “When you take out Jang, you’re not taking out just one person — you’re taking out scores if not hundreds of other people in the system. It’s got to have some ripple effect.”
North Korea has recently turned to attempts at diplomacy with South Korea and the United States. But tensions have remained high since Pyongyang’s threats in March and April. Those included warnings that it would restart nuclear bomb fuel production.
There was no immediate word about the fate of Jang’s wife, Kim Kyong Hui, the younger sister of Kim Jong Il. She was also seen as an important mentor to Kim Jong Un after her brother’s 2011 death.
The White House said it could not independently confirm reports of Jang’s execution but has “no reason to doubt” the report from KCNA. Patrick Ventrell, a National Security Council spokesman, said, “If confirmed, this is another example of the extreme brutality of the North Korean regime.”
The KCNA report was unusually specific. For instance, it criticized Jang for not rising and applauding his nephew’s previous appointment to a senior position because Jang “thought that if Kim Jong Un’s base and system for leading the army were consolidated, this would lay a stumbling block in the way of grabbing the power.”
“The accused is a traitor to the nation for all ages who perpetrated anti-party, counter-revolutionary factional acts in a bid to overthrow the leadership of our party and state and the socialist system,” it said, calling Jang a “despicable political careerist and trickster.”
State TV this week showed photos of him being dragged out of his seat at a meeting by two officers, in an extremely rare public humiliation of a figure who was then demonized as a drug-taking womanizer. He was described by state media as “abusing his power,” being “engrossed in irregularities and corruption,” and taking drugs and squandering money at casinos while undergoing medical treatment in a foreign country.