Kim Kyung-hee — sister to deceased North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il and aunt to current ruler Kim Jong-Un — reportedly managed to come out alive on the other side of the purge that saw her husband publicly accused of treason and executed.
The North Korean press reported the death of Jang Song-thaek on Thursday, going into lurid detail about the supposed crimes against the state of which he had been found guilty. Prior to the sudden reversal, Jang was seen as one of the top lieutenants in North Korea, and quite possibly the real power behind the throne. In announcing his alleged treachery, the state-run Korean Central News Agency referred to him as a “traitor to the nation for all ages” and “despicable human scum Jang, who was worse than a dog.”
Whether Kim Kyung-hee would share Jang’s fate was unknown in the days immediately following his death. Her name, like his, was scrubbed from North Korean media, leaving many to question whether she had also been killed, though more quietly than Jang. That question was answered on Saturday, with Kim’s name appearing on a list of officials who would be in charge of honoring a former party secretary who died at the age of 89 last week. With that announcement, Kim’s name was restored to the areas of North Korean media where it had previously been removed.
As J. Dana Stuster notes at Foreign Policy, the number of Kim’s advisors seen helping escort his father’s remains to burial has been dwindling over the years. Of the seven that helped the younger Kim bury his father, only two remain alive and in power. Aside from Jang’s death, two have disappeared, one has been demoted, and another fired from his post, leaving no military members of the “Gang of Seven” currently at Kim Jong-Un’s side.
The exact reason for Jang’s extremely dramatic removal from office is still disputed among analysts, though it is assumed to be a move designed to show the autonomy of the younger leader. At least one expert, however, believes that it’s a family affair. According to South Korean professor Kang Myong-do, Jang was killed for secretly meeting with Kim Jong-Un’s older brother Kim Jong Nam. “Kim Jong Un, who had been watching Jang since last year, found out, and he thought Jang was trying to enthrone Kim Jong Nam… that’s why he executed him,” Kang told South Korean media. The elder Kim was widely believed to be the next in line for to rule the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, until he was caught attempting to travel to Disneyland Tokyo on a fake passport.
Washington, meanwhile, is warning North Korea not to use Jang’s execution as an excuse for any further provocative actions that could be used to shore up domestic support for the regime. Secretary of State John Kerry told ABC’s This Week in an interview that Jang’s death isn’t the first major execution that the United States is aware of in recent weeks. “It tells us a significant amount about the instability, internally, of the regime, with the numbers of executions,” Kerry said. Kerry also said the “erratic” behavior of the younger Kim reminded him of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein during his time in power.