Often described as secretive and closed to the world, North Korea produced an unprecedented political moment on state television as the uncle of dictator Kim Jong-un was grabbed from his seat at a party meeting and escorted out of the hall.
North Korea is no stranger to political purges. But what makes this one extraordinary is the publicity around it – and the image capturing the moment.
A still image taken from North Korean state television footage shows uniformed officials approaching Jang Song Thaek, the uncle of dictator Kim Jong-un.
Dozens of senior members of the Workers’ Party of Korea wearing black suits watch with blank looks as the uncle rises from his seat and is removed from the meeting.
“[The uncle] may have stepped over the line. He probably came across as arrogant, and this latest sensational footage – and yes, that is unprecedented – that is his [Kim Jong-un’s] way of saying: Look out, I’m the top dog,” said Sung-Yoon Lee, a North Korea expert at the Fletcher School at Tufts University in Boston.
A once-powerful uncle
Jang Song Thaek is married to Kim Jong-un’s aunt and was vice-chairman of the national military council and held senior positions in the ruling party.
He was reportedly an elderly guiding force – even a mentor – when the young Kim Jong-un was thrust into power less than two years ago after the death of his father.
“But I felt his role had already been waning for some months,” said Scott Snyder, a North Korea expert at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Mr. Snyder focuses on two signs: The uncle, who had previously made a high-profile trip to neighboring China, was not sent in May this year; his public appearances alongside his nephew had declined over the past year.
News of a political purge started emerging last week through South Korean politicians, who told intelligence officials that senior aides to Kim Jong-un’s uncle had been arrested and executed.
Speculation swirled that the uncle had been sidelined. But nothing was confirmed until dramatic footage from North Korean television was broadcast Sunday – along with the publication of a long official statement.
Purges have happened regularly over the past 60 years in North Korea as a means of “instilling fear in would-be pretenders to the throne,” Mr. Lee said.
“The latest [purge] is noteworthy because the uncle has been considered de facto No. 2,” he added.
With the uncle’s removal, the dictator appears to be consolidating power, Mr. Snyder explained.
“It looks like he’s acting as a strong leader. This was really the only competitive network that could have posed an alternative threat. And he’s moved strongly to deal with that,” Mr. Snyder said.
At nearly 1,500 words long, the official North Korean statement released Sunday about the Workers’ Party of Korea meeting dwells mostly on the uncle’s alleged misdeeds – and it is a long list of “counterrevolutionary” behaviour that had the effect of “gnawing at the unity and cohesion of the party.”
“Jang pretended to uphold the party and leader but was engrossed in such factional acts as dreaming different dreams and involving himself in double-dealing behind the scene,” the statement said.
The allegations against the uncle build up over the course of the official statement: corruption, depravity, womanizing, creating a faction within the party and being “wined and dined at back parlors of deluxe restaurants.”
“Ideologically sick and extremely idle and easy-going, he used drugs and squandered foreign currency at casinos while he was receiving medical treatment in a foreign country under the care of the party,” the statement said.
The regime moved quickly to cut the uncle out of its propaganda images. A documentary that aired on the weekend on North Korean television showed that the uncle had been cut out of a dozen scenes.
Dead or alive?
The North Korean regime has little mercy for internal opposition – and it hinted at the uncle’s fate in the official statement.
“Our party will never pardon anyone challenging its leadership and infringing upon the interests of the state and people in violation of the principle of the revolution, regardless of his or her position and merits.”
Some North Korea observers – such as Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt in this tweet – speculate that the uncle may have been executed.
“The No. 2 in a totalitarian system is often the target in a political purge. His life is often short and precarious,” Mr. Lee said.
Similar purges of “No. 2” officials took place during the rule of Joseph Stalin in Russia and Mao Zedong in China, he said.
Mr. Snyder said there are examples of senior officials and family members who were sidelined and controlled – and not executed – during the rule of Kim Jong-un’s father. In fact, there are examples of individuals being “rehabilitated,” he said.
“This trend of execution would signal potentially a different style … and would say something about the leader’s self-confidence – and I’m not sure it would be a positive thing,” Mr. Snyder said.
Since Kim Jong-un took power in December two years ago, his regime has carried out two long-rage ballistic missile tests and a nuclear test.
According to Mr. Lee, the dismissal of Jang Song Thaek only adds to Kim Jong-un’s reputation as a “brash, impetuous” leader – and it could be a “harbinger of a misstep.”
“It seems like North Korea is an on accelerated course of internal oppression and external nuclear extortion,” Mr. Lee said, adding that the number of people who have managed to escape North Korea dropped by half in 2012 compared with the previous year.
One thing to watch for is the extent to which the uncle’s network is dismantled, Mr. Snyder said.
“At senior levels, there must be an atmosphere of fear in North Korea. I don’t know whether that in the end will be of help in consolidating power or whether it will backfire,” he said.
With a report from Tu Thanh Ha.