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Asia

North Korea: Beginning of a purge?

Just days after being ousted from power, North Korean state media reported the execution of Kim Jon Un's powerful uncle Jang Song Thaek. He was convicted of and executed for high treason.

Using plain language, the North Korean news agency KCNA appeared to be on a rhetorical warpath when it announced the death of Jang Song Thaek on Thursday night (12.13.2013). He was "despicable human scum," "worse than a dog," and had showed "his true face as the worst traitor of all times."

He was also accused of "improper relations to several women," drug use, and a "capitalistic lifestyle." He had allegedly admitted to planning a coup. On Thursday, a military tribunal sentenced North Korea's second-highest politician to death. The sentence was carried out immediately.

There had been rumors for several days that this might happen. Radio broadcaster Free North Korea, based in South Korea and run by North Korean refugees, reported in the middle of the week that Jang and several of his followers were executed. Earlier that week, North Korean media reported that Jang had been ousted from power. State television showed images of Jang's public arrest during a ruling party's politburo meeting. It is not clear if the pictures were manipulated or not.

Eliminating opponents

Observers see in Jang's execution the strongest shock to the North Korean power structure since the death of Kim Jong Il. For Eric Ballbach, a North Korea expert at the Free University Berlin, the most important aspect of this was how it happened.

"We have seen political purges in North Korea again and again - unfortunately, they are an integral part of totalitarian regimes," Ballbach noted. "But what surprised me was the public manner of it," he said in an interview with DW. The extent of this was unprecedented, he added.

Jang Song Thaek being led away by security forces (Photo: REUTERS/Yonhap - cannot be independently confirmed)

Jang was led away immediately after the judgment was announced

The wording used by North Korean media, which accused Jang of inciting division, was particularly noteworthy, according to Ballbach. "That is unusual for North Korean standards, because this breaks from the typical language of a unified and sacrosanct leadership," he said. Thus, the regime is admitting that there are factions against the regime of Kim Jong Un.

Cai Jian, director of the Korean Research Institute at the Fudan University in Shanghai, shares this opinion. "Even in the North Korean leadership, different opinions and 'opposition groups' do exist, regarding the country's development," Jian said in an interview with DW. "Jang was probably of the opinion that Kim's policy was leading North Korea into an abyss," he said.

From confidant to mortal enemy

For a long time, Jang Song Thaek was seen as the actual mastermind behind the state machinery. As a senior eminence with close ties to the Kim family, the 67-year-old was not only married to Kim Kyong Hui - the sister of Kim Jong Il - but he was also considered to be a mentor for the young ruler Kim Jong Un. Jang had participated significantly in establishing the inexperienced Kim Jong Un as successor to his father at the end of 2011.

Furthermore, he was deputy chairman of the powerful National Defense Commission. He had also been negotiating with major ally China on behalf of Pyongyang. "The execution will have huge effects on bilateral relations between China and North Korea," said Jian. Jang stood for economic cooperation between the two countries, and with his loss, "China lost an important contact person in North Korea."

Kim Jong Un and Jang Song Thaek escorting coffin of Kim Jong Il in 2011

After the death of of Kim Jong Il, Jang Song Thaek escorted the coffin - right behind Kim Jong Un

More purges?

At the moment, experts are occupied with the question of whether the execution of Jang Song Theak means an expansion of Kim's power. There is no easy answer, according to Ballbach. "In the short term, this strengthens his position," Ballbach said. "This step was an attempt to send a clear message deterring potential resistance groups. The main question is if he will succeed in securing his power in the medium and long term," Ballbach added.

As Jang had many followers in the regime, a purge might follow. "I'd say that this was just the beginning of a purge, and not its end," Ballbach said.

International concern

Needless to say, the international community has reacted with concern about the developments in North Korea. The word in Washington was that the US is in close contact with its allies in the region.

Meanwhile, the South Korean cabinet called a special meeting. "The government is deeply concerned and is watching the situation closely," the defense ministry in Seoul said. The government will apparently be "prepared for all contingences."

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