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More purges may follow execution in NKorea

Jang Song Thaek, with his hands tied with a rope, is dragged into the court by uniformed personnel.
Killing of leader’s uncle for plotting against government may cause a ripple effect

PYONGYANG, North Korea — The execution of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s uncle brought a swift and violent end to a man long considered the country’s second most powerful figure. But while Jang Song-thaek is now gone, the fallout from his purge is not over.

In a stunning reversal of the popular image of Jang as a mentor and father figure guiding young Kim Jong Un as he consolidated power, North Korea’s state-run media announced on Thursday he had been executed, portraying him as a morally corrupt traitor who saw the death of Kim’s father, Kim Jong -il in December 2011 as an opportunity to make his own power play.

Experts who study the authoritarian country, which closely guards its internal workings from both outsiders and citizens, were divided on whether the sudden turn of events reflected turmoil within the highest levels of power or signaled that Kim Jong-un was consolidating his power in a decisive show of strength. Either way, the purge is an unsettling development for a world that is already wary of Kim’s unpredictability amid North Korea’s attempts to develop nuclear weapons.

“If he has to go as high as purging and then executing Jang, it tells you that everything’s not normal,” said Victor Cha, a former senior White House adviser on Asia.

The first appearance of the new narrative came out just days ago, when North Korea accused Jang, 67, of corruption, womanizing, gambling and taking drugs. It said he’d been eliminated from all his posts. Thursday’s allegations heaped on claims that he tried “to overthrow the state by all sorts of intrigues and despicable methods with a wild ambition to grab the supreme power of our party and state.

“He dared not raise his head when Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il were alive,” it said, referring to the country’s first leader and his son. But after Kim Jong-il’s death, it claimed, Jang saw his chance to challenge Kim Jong-un and realize his “long-cherished goal, greed for power.”

The purge also could spread and bring down more people, Cha said. “When you take out Jang, you’re not taking out just one person — you’re taking out scores if not hundreds of other people in the system. It’s got to have some ripple effect.”

Closest aides too were executed

South Korean intelligence officials say two of Jang’s closest aides were executed last month.

Narushige Michishita, a security expert at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo, suggested that Jang’s removal shows “that Kim Jong-un has the guts to hold onto power, and this might have shown his will to power, his willingness to get rid of anything that stands in his way.”

One of the biggest opportunities for the world to see what might happen next will come December 17, the second anniversary of Kim Jong Il’s death. North Korea watchers will be closely following whether Jang’s wife, Kim Kyong-hui, the younger sister of Kim Jong-il, and other figures are present in official ceremonies marking the day.

Jang’s removal leaves no clear number two under Kim, whose inner circle now includes Vice Marshal Choe Ryong-hae, Premier Pak Pong Ju and the ceremonial head of state, Kim Yong-nam.

News of Jang’s execution was trumpeted across the nation by North Korea’s state media — with unusually vitriolic outbursts on TV, radio and in the main newspaper _ as a triumph of Kim Jong-un and the ruling party over a traitor “worse than a dog” who was bent on overthrowing the government.

Pyongyang residents crowded around newspapers posted at the capital’s main subway station to read the story. State media said Jang was tried for treason by a special military tribunal and executed on Thursday.

“He’s like an enemy who dares to be crazy enough to take over power from our party and our leader,” said Pak Chang-gil, echoing the media’s official line. “He got what he deserved.”

‘Uncle jang’

That’s a long way from the popular perception that “Uncle Jang” was nurturing his nephew as a regent appointed by Kim Jong Il. Jang was seen prominently behind Kim Jong-un as he walked beside his father’s hearse during his 2011 funeral. He was also a fixture at the new leader’s side as he toured the country.

The KCNA report was unusually specific in its accusations. It criticized Jang for not rising and applauding his nephew’s appointment to a senior position because Jang “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.”

It stressed repeatedly that Jang had tried to assemble a faction of his own, suggesting the purging process could still be playing out.

‘Reign of terror’

Jang’s death could herald a “reign of terror,” including more purges, said Lim Eul-chul, a North Korea expert at South Korea’s Kyungnam University.

Another question mark is how the purge will affect North Korea’s relationship with its only major ally, China. Jang had been seen as the leading supporter of Chinese-style economic reforms and an important link between Pyongyang and Beijing. China has called Jang’s execution a domestic issue and has avoided further public comment.

North Korea has recently turned to attempts at diplomacy with South Korea and the United States. But tensions have remained high since Pyongyang’s threats in March and April, which included warnings that it would restart nuclear bomb fuel production.

Another resident of Pyongyang, Ri Chol-ho, said he did not believe Jang alone was deserving of the harshest punishment.

“For this group of traitors who were going to destroy our single-hearted unity, execution is too lenient,” he said. “They should be torn up and thrown into the rubbish bin of history.”

Herald with AP

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