SEOUL – The execution of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s uncle marks the unprecedented fall from grace of one of the most powerful figures in North Korea and the most serious political upheaval in the country in decades.
Jang Song Thaek rose from municipal bureaucrat to vice chairman of the National Defense Commission and member of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party — posts that put him second in power only to Kim.
A well-traveled operator with a network that spread to China, Jang was considered the chief architect of an economic policy that focused on partnering with its giant neighbor and ally.
His ties to Kim were more than political: Jang was married to the leader’s aunt, Kim Kyong Hui, and in late 2008 was assumed to be serving in a regency role while the young heir was being groomed to succeed father Kim Jong Il. Jang often accompanied Kim Jong Un on guidance trips, and stood at his elbow at public events.
Rumors of Jang’s dismissal began surfacing in Seoul earlier this month. On Sunday, he was fired from all posts at a special party meeting and dragged away by soldiers. Four days after his dramatic public arrest, Jang was tried for treason by a special military tribunal and executed Thursday, state media reported early Friday. He was 67.
The list of crimes against Jang was long, with plotting to overthrow the leadership the most serious of the allegations. Jang confessed, according to Pyongyang’s official Korean Central News Agency.
For the outside world, KCNA’s 2,700-word treatise ripping Jang’s reputation to shreds provided an intriguing and revealing glimpse into the murky, feudalistic world of politics in the secretive country.
For North Koreans, the shocking public pillorying of a man seen as a father figure to Jong Un was designed to send a clear message about tolerating opposition in a totalitarian state that demands absolute loyalty to the leader.
It was a humiliating end to a complicated career.
Jang, a native of the far northeastern border city of Chongjin, hailed from humble roots but was sharp enough to gain entry to the prestigious Kim Il Sung University in Pyongyang. He started as an instructor for the Pyongyang City Committee of the Workers’ Party, and rose post by post until he reached the top ranks.
He was purged and sent to a labor camp for two years in the mid-2000s, according to Kim Young-Soo, a North Korea expert at Sogang University in Seoul. That purge was widely seen as a move to clip his wings.
It was after Kim Jong Il’s stroke in 2008, as the regime began grooming Kim Jong Un to succeed him, that Jang began his meteoric rise to the inner circle, an ascension that gained speed after Kim Jong Il’s death from a heart attack in December 2011.
Jang was not a career military man but was made a four-star general, and often appeared at state events in a trim white general’s uniform. He was appointed director of the administration department of the party’s Central Committee, a position that gave him power over security agencies as well as the judiciary.
And as a core member of the Political Bureau, he helped engineer a campaign to bring the once-powerful military into the party’s fold.
Jang played a key role in shaping economic policy in the impoverished country, particularly in expanding international joint ventures, particularly with China. Under Kim, the government has made improving the economy one of its two main party objectives, along with building nuclear weapons.
A shrewd-looking man who looked out on the world from behind tinted glasses, Jang basked in his special status as the nation’s No. 2 official. He displayed boldness at public events where the rest of the top officials sat at attention, clapping with the kind of ennui only displayed by one other man: Kim Jong Un.