Why It Matters That North Korea’s Leader Just Killed His Uncle


The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is often inextricably linked with the Kim who is in power at any given time, a legacy that goes back to the end of the Second World War when the family’s scion Kim Il-Sung first declared North Korea a communist state in his image. The trappings of the cult of personality that has surrounded Kim, his son Kim Jong-Il, and grandson — and current leader — Kim Jong-Un has provided the country with the only modicum of stability available under such a regime. That same devotion to the Kim family has also been the regime’s greatest weakness, as illustrated in Thursday’s announcement of the execution of Kim Jong-Un’s uncle proves.

Bombastic in language and rhetoric, the official announcement from the North Korean state-news agency KCNA was quickly circulated around the Internet for its sheer breadth of ways in which it referred to Jang Song Thaek as a traitor to the country. Previously portrayed in state media as a kindly uncle guiding the young Kim forward in his destiny, the release from KCNA referred to Jang as a “traitor to the nation for all ages” and “despicable human scum Jang, who was worse than a dog.” Comparatively, in August 2012, Jang led a delegation to Beijing to spur economic relationships between the Hermit Kingdom and China.

The sharp reversal highlights a case where the North Korean leadership needed to move fast and hard to counter its previous spin. To do so, KCNA’s release goes into at times mind-numbing detail about the supposed crimes of Jang:

Jang committed such an unpardonable thrice-cursed treason as overtly and covertly standing in the way of settling the issue of succession to the leadership with an axe to grind when a very important issue was under discussion to hold respected Kim Jong Un in high esteem as the only successor to Kim Jong Il in reflection of the unanimous desire and will of the entire party and army and all people.

When his cunning move proved futile and the decision that Kim Jong Un was elected vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission of the Workers’ Party of Korea at the Third Conference of the WPK in reflection of the unanimous will of all party members, service personnel and people was proclaimed, making all participants break into enthusiastic cheers that shook the conference hall, he behaved so arrogantly and insolently as unwillingly standing up from his seat and half-heartedly clapping, touching off towering resentment of our service personnel and people.

Given the opacity of the regime, it’s hard to tell exactly what motivated the sudden change in favor towards Jang, whose removal from power was first reported last Tuesday. Prior to then, outside observers had heralded him as the power behind the throne. “Whatever problems it faced, North Korea has usually acted in a way to bolster its leaders,” said Chin Hee-gwan, a professor South Korea’s Inje University, told the Associated Press. “By showing a little bit of a reign of terror, it’s likely that Kim Jong Un’s power will be further consolidated.”

China likewise publicly hopes that the death of Jang will usher in a new period of stability for its often troubled neighbor. Chinese analysts, however, saw his very public execution as a possible ominous sign, given his close ties to the Beijing government. There is also possibility that Jang’s execution could actually cause further instability among the elites of the insular country. Politicking is a way of life for the various generals and party officials who keep the country marginally running and Kim’s remaining lieutenants may find themselves preferring open confrontation to being dismissed as swiftly as Jang.

Jang’s death comes after several recent high-profile executions rumored to come from the DPRK in recent weeks, though his holds the distinction of a very public confirmation. According to South Korea media, 80 people were allegedly killed in November for the crime of watching South Korean television dramas. Rumors also indicated that Kim Jong-Un had ordered the execution of an ex-lover to protect the dignity of his wife, which North Korea later slammed the “reptile media” for advancing.