December 9, 2013

Purge sends chilling message to North Korea’s elite

By purging his own uncle, Kim Jong Un signals that no one is beyond reach, not even family.

By Jean H. Lee
The Associated Press

SEOUL, South Korea — While the rest of North Korea’s top brass leaped to their feet before Kim Jong Un, clapping wildly in a requisite show of respect at high-level meetings, his uncle, Jang Song Thaek, often seemed nonchalant, at times even bored. Once considered the force behind the young leader, he displayed a bold insouciance that seemed calculated to show he was beyond reach.

click image to enlarge

In this Feb. 16, 2012 photo, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un walks past his uncle Jang Song Thaek, left, after reviewing a parade of thousands of soldiers and commemorating the 70th birthday of the late Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang, North Korea. North Korea announced Monday, Dec. 9, 2013 it had sacked leader Jang, long considered the country’s No. 2 power, saying corruption, drug use, gambling, womanizing and generally leading a “dissolute and depraved life” had caused Pyongyang’s highest-profile fall from grace since Kim took power two years ago.

AP Photo/Kyodo News

So by purging his own uncle, Kim has delivered a more chilling message: No one is beyond reach, not even family.

Jang’s fall from grace, accompanied by allegations from corruption to womanizing and capped by his dramatic arrest at a party meeting Sunday, has no doubt spooked Pyongyang’s elite. It also suggests Kim is still trying to consolidate the power he inherited from his father two years ago.

This is far from Kim’s first purge. Several defense ministers and army chiefs have been replaced as the Workers’ Party has asserted control over the military after 17 years of military-first rule under late leader Kim Jong Il.

But it is the ouster of Jang, who had been considered North Korea’s second-most-powerful figure, that sends the strongest signal to anyone seeking to challenge Kim Jong Un.

Jang, 67, had occupied a privileged and yet precarious spot within the inner circle. He is the husband of Kim Kyong Hui, the only daughter of late President Kim Il Sung, younger sister to Kim Jong Il and aunt to Kim Jong Un.

Jang was seen as a regent figure as Kim Jong Un was being groomed to succeed his father. He rose in party and military ranks alongside his baby-faced nephew, often dressed in a trim white general’s uniform and standing within arm’s length of Kim on field visits and at state events.

In 2012, he led a business delegation to China to discuss the construction of special economic zones. He also served as chairman of the State Physical Culture and Sports Guidance Commission, which oversees many of Kim Jong Un’s pet projects.

Last week, South Korea’s spy agency gave the first public word that Jang may have been dismissed. It said he had not been seen publicly in weeks and his two closest confidants executed.

North Korean state media has not confirmed the executions, but on Monday it made vividly clear that Jang is out. Images aired on state TV showed him being stripped of all his titles at Sunday’s party meeting led by Kim. Premier Pak Pong Ju was in tears as he denounced his longtime friend.

This time, there was no white general’s uniform: Jang was dressed in civilian wear and sitting in the audience, not with the rest of the leadership. Party members watched impassively, barely flinching or raising an eyebrow, as two burly men grabbed Jang.

State media laid out a laundry list of Jang’s alleged transgressions, including instigating party dissent and squandering party funds on drugs, gambling and women. He was branded “depraved” for living a “capitalist” lifestyle.

North Koreans sometimes “disappear” for re-education and re-emerge later, and Jang has been purged before. He dropped out of sight for a few years in the mid-2000s, reportedly for going too far with fledgling economic reforms under Kim Jong Il. But Monday’s pillorying was unprecedented, and a startling show for a regime that typically keeps its internal politics secret.

Privately, few among North Korea’s elite would be shocked by Jang’s alleged behavior in “back parlors of deluxe restaurants,” as described in state media. Korea has a rich tradition of aristocratic misbehavior, and that culture of “wining and dining,” preferably with a pretty woman who is not your wife pouring your drinks, persists in both South and North Korea even today.

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