North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s execution of his uncle Jang Song Thaek signaled that he has full control of the totalitarian regime as he seeks to quell doubts he is too young and inexperienced.
“Kim Jong Un is saying he is in power,” said Bruce Klingner, former head of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency’s Korea desk. “He has taken power politics to an even higher and more brutal level than what his father and his grandfather did.”
Jang, 67, was killed immediately after a special military tribunal convicted him of factionalism, graft and plotting to stage a coup against Kim, the official Korean Central News Agency said yesterday. He was arrested at a Politburo meeting on Dec. 8, where he was stripped of his titles as a four-star general and vice chairman of the National Defense Commission, the highest seat of power in Pyongyang, the capital.
North Korea’s state media, which announced previous demotions and purges in short, belated dispatches or by erasing officials from archives, broadcast Jang’s ouster with photos of the arrest and a detailed treatise of his alleged crimes.
Kim, believed to be about 30 and in his second year as leader after succeeding his father, Kim Jong Il, chose to publicly eliminate a relative with 40 years of experience in policy-making to signal that he alone controls the regime without oversight by any “regents,” said Klinger, now a senior research fellow at the Washington-based Heritage Foundation.
The dismissal has “elements of ‘pushing out all the people who were put in by Daddy to guide me,’” said Leon Sigal, director of the Northeast Asia Cooperative Security Project at the Social Science Research Council in New York.
Koh Yu Hwan, a professor of North Korean Studies at Dongguk University in Seoul, described the execution as “blitzkrieg-style,” and said it displayed a determination to “wipe out any potential source of dissidence.” He predicted more purges to follow.
The execution drew concern from South Korea, the U.S. and Japan and sowed doubts about stability in the highly secretive nation, which has conducted three nuclear tests since 2006, including one in February, and is seeking the ability to deliver nuclear warheads on a long-range missile.
South Korean Defense minister Kim Kwan Jin told lawmakers in Seoul that his military is being extra-vigilant for fear of the North staging a military provocation against the South to rally the nation away from a domestic political crisis.
“The North Korean military may make a wrong decision for various reasons,” he said. “There may be a competition within the military to show loyalty to Kim.”
The U.S. will increase consultations with allies in Asia, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said yesterday.
Defense-related stocks gained yesterday in Seoul trading. Speco Co., a maker of products such as fin stabilizers and water jets, advanced as much as 13.3 percent, the biggest gain in more than two months, and Victek Co., a manufacturer of electronic warfare equipment, added 4.6 percent as of 11:17 a.m. The benchmark Kospi index fell 0.6 percent to 1,957.08.
Jang was handpicked by North Korean founder Kim Il Sung to marry his daughter -- and Kim Jong Il’s sister -- Kim Kyong Hui in 1972. He walked right behind Kim Jong Un in December 2011 during a funeral procession for Kim Jong Il, illustrating the power line-up in the secretive regime.
Before his arrest Jang sought foreign investment for a country that lacks hard currency, overseeing special economic zones near the border with China. North Korea’s economy has contracted in four of the past seven years, the Bank of Korea estimates, as Kim’s regime kept military spending its priority.
Jang represented a “China wing” of the leadership that was very close to the Chinese government, Charles K. Armstrong, a professor of Korean studies at Columbia University in New York, said by e-mail.
While Jang is the most high-profile official to be purged, the disappearance of a senior official isn’t unprecedented since Kim Jong Un’s ascension to power. In 2012, KCNA said that Ri Yong Ho, the general staff chief, had been removed from all posts, while traces of him were eliminated from official footage and photos. KCNA didn’t explain the decision. In October, Kim also replaced his chief of general staff for a third time since taking over the 1.2 million-strong army.
This is the “most dangerous time” in North Korea since Kim took power as there is virtually no information about who will replace Jang and whether those who are appointed will last, Richard Armitage, a former U.S. deputy secretary of state, said in a phone interview. “He’s having difficulty settling on who ‘his people’ are. He appears to get rapidly disenchanted.”
“There is not much we can do because we don’t know where to find purchase, where to put our hands,” said Armitage, adding that the U.S. will have to go into close consultations with China, which has “lost key leverage” on the North.
“China is going to try to figure out if they have any impact,” he said. “They had previously considered Jang Song Thaek to be as close as anyone to China.”