Just over a week after South Korean intelligence officials revealed that North Korea had purged senior government official Jang Song Thaek, who also happened to be the uncle of leader Kim Jong Un, North Korean state media have announced that Jang has been executed. Jang's bizarre case raises two closely related but distinct questions: What did Jang do? And why would Kim have his own uncle put to death?
The truth, needless to say, is probably not that Jang was killed for "half-heartedly clapping," as the North's state-run Korean Central News Agency claims in a lengthy explanation for the execution. More likely, this is perhaps a way for Kim to consolidate his power within a large, inscrutable bureaucracy that's dominated by much older and more experience cadres who may have resisted the young upstart's leadership.
The highly public purge of Jang has been unprecedented from the beginning. North Korea has had plenty of political purges in its history, but never like this; they've been done quietly, behind the scenes. But state media denounced Jang earlier this week, publicly condemning him and listing his alleged crimes. The entire front page of the official Rodong Sinmun newspaper was dedicated to Jang's ouster on Monday; so was a special broadcast on North Korean state TV that showed troops arresting Jang in the middle of a politburo meeting.
Turning this high-level political purge into such a national display is totally without precedent for North Korea. That may give us some clue as to what happened and why Kim would order his own uncle put to death.
One thing that the theories tend to emphasize is Kim's youth. He's thought to be about 30 and came to power several years earlier than anticipated when his father, Kim Jong Il, died unexpectedly. He is only North Korea's third ruler in its history. His grandfather, Kim Il Sung, was a confident leader; Kim Jong Il steered the country through a famine in the 1990s -- barely. No one has been quite sure what to expect from the untested young, new leader -- perhaps including members of his own government, the inner workings of which are highly mysterious.
Andrei Lankov, a South Korea-based scholar often considered the dean of North Korea analysts, discussed theories regarding Jang's purge in a Monday column for NKNews.org. Here, leaning on Lankov's analysis, are three reads on possible explanations for why Kim would purge and execute his uncle Jang.
1. Mentors are often toppled.
It was only three years ago that Kim Jong Il appointed Jang to groom his son to one day take power himself. What none of them knew is that the elder Kim had just a year and a few months left to live. Jang was about to go from Kim Jong Un's mentor and caretaker to his subordinate.
"Being a mentor has always been a risky job, sooner or later the young king -- or in this particular case ‘Kim’ -- was going to come of age," Lankov writes. "When this happens, he is likely to take out his grudges on the old men who used to boss him around."
Kim certainly gives the impression of having a chip on his shoulder; it's not hard to imagine him wanting to prove, to himself and to his government, that he had gone from student to master, that the caretakers should fear him rather than lecture him. But, as Lankov points out, this is an unsatisfying explanation in itself because it treats Kim as irrational. He might look that way from the outside sometimes, but he's proved himself to be cannily rational.
2. Kim Jong Un wanted a fresh start -- whatever the cost.
Kim Jong Il did not appear eager for the job when he took power on his own father's death in 1994. And he came into office in reactive mode, trying to handle the famine and economic crisis many thought would destroy the government entirely. So it's plausible he would have been okay with inheriting his father's government and officials, even wanting to maintain continuity.
But Kim Jong Un has appeared far more ambitious than his father, appearing regularly on state media and showing off one new initiative after another. If the young Kim wants to do something new, he'll need a government staffed with people loyal to him and his ideas. Jang, an established figure within the regime, might not have been particularly eager to jump-to for the fresh new leader.
Lankov argues that Kim would predictably want to "gradually dispose of his father’s team" and replace them with his own people, but that some members of the "old guard" might not be willing to step down quietly. "It is therefore not surprising that some would have to be removed forcibly," Lankov writes.
Still, this does not explain why the purge would be so unusually public -- or why it would have to end with an execution. After all, there have been lots of high-level North Korean political purges; they've been much more low-key and, in many cases, not fatal.
3. Kim is consolidating power and wants to scare other officials.
Kim came to power unexpectedly in late 2011, and after just a few short years in the country. He probably did not have much of a power base within the regime. The North Korean system has a lot of powerful people in it, and it's probably not as simple for Kim as issuing orders and having everyone dutifully carry them out -- particularly since so many senior regime officials are much older and more experienced than he is.
What better way to consolidate power among those older and more experienced members of North Korea's elite, then, than to scare the living daylights out of them? Maybe Jang's purge, his national humiliation and his execution were all Kim's way of sending a message to the rest of the Pyongyang elite: "I'm a lot tougher than my father and willing to be a lot more brutal to you, so you'd better get in line."
This is the most straightforward explanation. It also seems, from the outside at least, the most plausible.