On Friday, North Korea’s state-run Korean Central News Agency released a stunning 2,700-word diatribe announcing that Jang Song Thaek—the once-powerful uncle of Kim Jong Un and now a “traitor for all ages” reduced to “despicable human scum”—had been executed for plotting a coup and committing “thrice-cursed acts of treachery,” including “half-heartedly clapping” at a ceremony for Kim. With analysts divided over whether the news suggests the young North Korean leader is consolidating or losing control, we asked Adam Cathcart, a historian of North Korea at the University of Leeds, to annotate the most notable sections of KCNA’s report. Beyond the florid rhetoric, what is the significance of this unprecedented glimpse into power politics in Pyongyang? – Uri Friedman
With its sudden and ferocious report, produced after Jang Song Thaek’s short trial this week before a military tribunal, state media is requiring North Koreans from all walks of society to express their pent-up rage at Jang, once the presumptive second-in-command of the country. But certain elements of the article are not entirely novel. Not very long ago, it was former South Korean President Lee Myung Bak who was the country’s enemy number one, denounced in meetings as a rat deserving only of the bayonet (his effigy was torn apart by dogs on the evening news in Pyongyang). The same syntax of rage is being employed now, but the difference, of course, is that Lee is still safe and alive south of the DMZ, while Jang never left the North and is now dead.
For North Koreans still in possession of their Kim badges and polished home portraits, the opening of the KCNA dispatch immediately indicates the proper public response to the news of the former official’s fall from grace:
Pyongyang, December 13 (KCNA) -- Upon hearing the report on the enlarged meeting of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Workers' Party of Korea, the service personnel and people throughout the country broke into angry shouts that a stern judgment of the revolution should be meted out to the anti-party, counter-revolutionary factional elements. Against the backdrop of these shouts rocking the country, a special military tribunal of the DPRK Ministry of State Security was held on December 12 against traitor for all ages Jang Song Thaek.
The tribunal is alleged to be a manifestation of the collective public will—an obvious means of giving a shred of procedural legitimacy to the affair and of getting around the simple fact that Kim Jong Un and his clique appear to have decided that they wanted and needed to kill Jang. The Korean Workers’ Party often ascribes the presence of statues, inscriptions, and mosaics of the Kims across North Korea to bottom-up societal pressure, when in fact these projects are undertaken at great expense at the impetus of the central leadership. This is not to say that any execution of an official would be unpopular in North Korea—quite the contrary. If it were to involve officials who colluded with drug dealers or pimps (both types have been executed in the past), it might generate some measurable groundswell of public acquiescence or support. But Jang is no normal official, and his show trial and the public nature of his execution is extraordinary.
The accused Jang brought together undesirable forces and formed a faction as the boss of a modern day factional group for a long time…
Who is part of this faction? It’s an answer that the North Korean leader himself seems eager to keep rather open-ended. The purge could last another week, or months. The Japanese newspaper Mainichi Shimbun has reported the execution of Ri Chol, another Kim family confidante who, prior to getting wrapped up with Jang and business deals in China, had been a childhood protector of Kim Jong Un and the family fortune in Switzerland. Other aides may meet the same fate, but the vast majority of Jang’s patronage network will likely be given the chance to repent for their sins. This, in fact, is now the message to the public at large: Make a clean break with any lingering affections for Jang and his foreign-flavored brand of leadership.
Jang was appointed to responsible posts of the party and state thanks to the deep political trust of President Kim Il Sung and leader Kim Jong Il and received benevolence from them more than any others from long ago.
Jang’s perfidy is portrayed as particularly acute: He has betrayed not simply the country’s new leader, but also past generations of North Korean leadership. To betray Kim Jong Un is, by extension, to betray his heroic grandfather. It is also perhaps for this reason that Kim Jong Il’s image appeared so prominently on stage during the December 8 meeting in Pyongyang at which Jang was led away by Korean People’s Army soldiers.
He held higher posts than before and received deeper trust from supreme leader Kim Jong Un, in particular. The political trust and benevolence shown by the peerlessly great men of Mt. Paektu were something he hardly deserved.
No one in the North Korean domestic context is really able to state that he or she deserves “political trust and benevolence” from Kim Jong Un. But what is remarkable here is that Kim clearly trusted Jang. In addition to being related to Kim by marriage, Jang was with the young North Korean leader at so many of the vital points of his ascent to and exercise of power. Jang, for instance, was sitting next to Kim during the country’s December 2012 missile test. Why would Kim be so naive as to install a man so dangerous in his inner circle? It’s a question that’s implicit in the article—but one that must not be asked.