Jang Song Thaek execution tests North Korea's Kim, China's patience

The surprise execution of North Korea's second in command, the uncle of President Kim Jong-un, seems to have caught even China off guard, Patrick Brown writes. Either Kim is consolidating his power, or he is on the verge of losing it.

Either Kim Jong-un is consolidating his power base, or he is on the verge of losing it

North Korean officials offer flowers at Mansudae in Pyongyang on the eve of the second anniversary of the death of former leader Kim Jong-il on Monday. At the same time, the (North) Korea Central News Agency deleted some 35,000 online articles from its archives, keeping records that only go back to October 2013. (KCNA / Reuters)

Already in a class of its own for the grotesque and inscrutable hyperbole of its bulletins, the (North) Korea Central News Agency outdid itself recently with the announcement of the execution of dictator Kim Jong-un's uncle, Jang Song Thaek.

The 2,700-word document, which described Jang as "a despicable political careerist and trickster," "worse than a dog," and "human scum" left North Korea-watchers gasping for breath. And struggling to hedge their bets.

Most concluded that the purge of a man who had been the second most powerful figure in the regime could either mean that Kim Jong-un has finally consolidated his power base, or that he is on the brink of losing it.

Experts on North Korea, who are rarely able actually to visit the country, are unusual among academics for their willingness to admit they have little idea what's going on in their chosen field.

"Nobody knows what this means for stability in North Korea," David Straub, director of Korean studies at Stanford University, told the website.

"Everyone has a view, it's all speculation. It could, for a time, mean more stability, it could mean less stability. We just don't know."

Jang Song Thaek had been an important figure in North Korea since 1972, when he married the daughter of Kim Il-sung, the first of the country's three dictators, known as "the Great Leader."

Jang rose to prominence when the Great Leader's son, Kim Jong-il, known as "the Dear Leader," suffered a stroke in 2008.

He guided the country during Kim's final illness, and engineered the tricky transition of power to the third generation, grooming the young and inexperienced Kim Jong-un to take over when his father died in 2011.

It now seems the youngest Kim may have been nursing a grudge over his time as an apprentice dictator.

The extensive list of Jang's alleged crimes includes a charge of "clapping half-heartedly" while others were rapturously applauding Kim's elevation to the vice-chairmanship of the Military Commission three years ago.

No more training wheels

Like other states modelled on Stalin's Soviet Union, North Korea has never been shy about purging officials for offences real or imagined.

But it is unprecedented for a member of the ruling family to be taken out and shot. Members of the inner circle who have fallen out of favour have usually simply disappeared from public life.

Jang himself was sent off to work in a steel mill for a time in 2004, only to be rehabilitated later.

North Korea's former number two, Jang Song Thaek (centre), watches an honour guard parade at the commemoration for fallen heroes in July. Five months later he was executed for treason. (Jason Lee / Reuters)

The unwritten rule against physical harm to rivals among the country's top elite means that Jang may not have feared the worst.

But he did have good reason to worry: Of the seven men who accompanied Kim as he walked beside his father's hearse two years ago, four were either demoted, purged or shot before Jang's recent arrest.

South Korean reports say that about half of the country's top 200 officials and military officers have been replaced since Kim came to power. The young dictator has been kicking away the training wheels for some time.

As for Jang, he was accused of an extraordinary range of misbehaviour. He "distributed pornography" and had "improper relations with several women." He also "wined and dined at back parlours of deluxe restaurants," and "gambled away six million dollars in a foreign casino in 2009 alone."

Most serious of all, he was accused of plotting a coup to overthrow the leader.

He is said to have admitted deliberately steering the economy towards an "uncontrollable catastrophe," while hiding funds against the day when deteriorating living conditions would lead to an uprising. Then he would step forward as leader, spending his hidden money to fix the economy.

More to come?

For North Koreans, used to being told that their country is a great and glorious workers' paradise under the wise guidance of a god-like family, they may be shocked by the lurid descriptions of life at the top, and frank admissions of possible economic disaster.

So one likely purpose of the execution is to shovel the blame for all that is wrong in North Korea at the moment onto Jang's shoulders, though he would not have been expected to bear it alone.

The indictment says that Jang had "flatterers," "stooges" and confidants in government, the party, the military and the security apparatus.

Many are predicting that the Jang execution is merely the beginning of a bloody witch hunt.

South Korea President Park Geun-hye says her country is paying close attention to  events across the border. Her take: "North Korea is currently engaged in a reign of terror while carrying out massive purges in order to consolidate Kim Jong-un's power."

South Korean President Park Geun-hye has put her forces on high alert in the wake of the Jang execution and says the South is expecting another "provocation" from the North. (Associated Press)

China is also watching closely. Jang was the key figure in North Korea's relationship with its only ally. He visited Beijing last year to meet China's president and premier while Kim stayed at home.

The economic charges against Jang specifically criticize the deal setting up a special economic zone near the Chinese border, and the price of minerals sold to China.

North Korea relies heavily on China, but calculates probably correctly that China would rather have the current regime, however difficult, next door than see turmoil and the possible emergence of a single Korean state friendly to the U.S.

The gratuitous suggestion that China was double-dealing with Jang to cheat North Korea is intended for a domestic audience, as part of the picture of a heroic regime standing up to enemies near and far.

One of South Korea's concerns is that a new nuclear test or a military provocation against the South would serve a similar purpose, and would indicate that Kim is still using the world-provoking playbook inherited from his father and grandfather.

The second anniversary of the death of Kim Jong-il this week is an important commemoration in North Korea. In the days ahead, the list of participants will be scrutinized as a guide to who is still standing, now that Kim Jong-un has made his bones.

About the Author

Patrick Brown

Eye on Asia

Former CBC correspondent Patrick Brown has reported from world capitals and dusty backwaters for over 30 years, with a particular emphasis on Asia, having been based at different times in Bangkok, Delhi and, most recently, Beijing. He now splits his time between Canada and China as an independent documentary-maker. Follow Patrick Brown on Twitter: @truthfromfacts