'Thrice-Cursed Acts of Treachery'? Parsing North Korea's Report on the Execution of Kim Jong Un's Uncle

An annotated guide to one of the most grandiose news bulletins ever released
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North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, flanked by his uncle, Jang Song Thaek, leaves a military parade to mark the birth anniversary of his father, Kim Jong Il, in Pyongyang, on February 16, 2012. (Reuters/Kyodo)

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

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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. 

Before the report launches into an exhaustive list of Jang’s misdeeds, it reaches a key moment in North Korean history. It asserts that Jang demonstrated views or proclivities prior to Kim Jong Il’s death that suggested his lack of support for a hereditary succession. Kim Jong Un, it appears, is still incredibly sensitive about the lack of a consensus among North Korean elites that he—rather than his brothers, or sister, or some collective of older apparatchiks that could have included Jang—was the natural choice for leading North Korea after Kim Jong Il.

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.

The notion of a death sentence for tepid applause is both tragic and easily parodied. KCNA is unintentionally echoing the inmate’s anecdote in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago of a man imprisoned in the Soviet Union for being the first to stop clapping for Stalin near the end of a 10-minute ovation. And clearly the “towering resentment” Jang evoked is to be read retrospectively; no one noted the slight publicly at the time. Jang might have been more mindful of the example of his old rival, General Ri Yong Ho, who appeared to be borderline insubordinate during the outrageously campy and ebullient performance given by the gesticulating, babbling Kim Jong Un at his first on-site inspection as leader in January 2012. If the clapping accusation is merely a pretext for removing Jang, perhaps it is tragicomic. Far scarier is the idea that North Korean officials may take the charge seriously and feel that unenthusiastic applause, or the slightest downgrading of the Kimist personality cult, is tantamount to a criminal offense against the very sovereignty of North Korea.

Jang confessed that he behaved so at that time as a knee-jerk reaction as he thought that if Kim Jong Un's base and system for leading the army were consolidated, this would lay a stumbling block in the way of grabbing the power of the party and state.

When Kim Jong Il passed away so suddenly and untimely to our sorrow, he began working in real earnest to realize its long-cherished greed for power.

Abusing the honor of often accompanying Kim Jong Un during his field guidance, Jang tried hard to create illusion about him by projecting himself internally and externally as a special being on a par with the headquarters of the revolution.

This passage is quite consequential, as it has implications for North Korea’s bureaucracy going forward. For anyone to “project himself internally and externally,” a huge propaganda apparatus has to be engaged. When a picture runs on the front page of North Korea’s Rodong Sinmun newspaper, it reflects not just policy direction, but also the visualization of power in North Korea. If newspaper and television/documentary film editors were involved in depicting Jang as a powerful figure—and they could hardly have turned down the powerful figure—they, too, are potentially implicated in his amorphous “counter-revolutionary faction.” Behind the heavy breathing and sing-song declamation of, for instance, North Korean news anchors, there are human beings who are probably suffering from a serious case of whiplash as a result of Jang’s execution—the whole point of which appears to be realigning and securing, yet again, the political loyalties of North Koreans.

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Adam Cathcart is a lecturer in history at the University of Leeds and the editor of SinoNK.com.

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