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North Korea executes leader’s ‘traitor’ uncle
Agence France Presse
Jang Song-Thaek  (2nd-R) being escorted in court on December 12, 2013. (AFP PHOTO/YONHAP)
Jang Song-Thaek (2nd-R) being escorted in court on December 12, 2013. (AFP PHOTO/YONHAP)
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SEOUL: North Korea announced Friday the execution of leader Kim Jong Un’s uncle, branding veteran fixer Jang Song Thaek a “traitor for all ages,” as the U.S. and South Korea voiced concern at the shock purge.

In a stunning downfall, Jang – who had been seen as Kim’s political regent and the country’s unofficial No. 2 – was executed Thursday immediately after a special military trial, state news agency KCNA reported.

In a viciously worded attack it said he committed such a “hideous crime as attempting 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.”

The report portrayed Jang as decadent and corrupt, “stretching his tentacles” into every area of national affairs. In a rare admission of economic strife, it also blamed him for the failings of the hungry and impoverished nation.

Jang, 67, played a key role in cementing the leadership of the inexperienced Kim when he succeeded his father Kim Jong Il in 2011, but analysts said his power and influence had become increasingly resented.

State media showed a stooped and handcuffed Jang being led away from the military trial, flanked by two officers, one of whom had a hand on the back of his neck.

“If confirmed, this is another example of the extreme brutality of the North Korean regime,” U.S. State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said, adding that Washington was following developments closely.

South Korea expressed “deep concerns” Friday over the developments, and said it would prepare for “all possibilities in the future” and coordinate closely with its allies.

“The North usually curbs internal instability by waging provocations externally,” the South’s Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-Jae said, warning the purge could be followed by military responses including another nuclear test.

China – the North’s sole major ally and economic lifeline – said Jang’s execution was an internal matter but also emphasized the need for stability.

“As a neighbor we hope to see national stability, economic development and people living in happiness in the DPRK,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said at a briefing.

Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt Friday condemned the “Stalinist” execution.

“I think that what we see now publicly is only the surface of an empire of horror,” he told public broadcaster Sveriges Radio.

Meanwhile a spokeswoman for U.N. human rights agency OHCHR, Ravina Shamdasani, said the execution “underscores the arbitrary nature of the system in the DPRK and the absence of transparency and due process that is required for the rule of law.”

Three generations of the Kim family have ruled the North for six decades with an iron fist, regularly purging those showing the slightest sign of dissent. Most are executed or sent to prison camps, but the nation has not seen such a high-level execution for decades.

The regime accused Jang of betraying the trust of both Kim Jong Un, who is aged around 30, and his father – saying he had received “deeper trust” from the younger leader in particular.

In a nation long ruled under a pervasive personality cult, Jang was also accused of slighting the young leader – not applauding him enthusiastically enough at party meetings and blocking the construction of a mosaic in his honor at a tile factory.

Deriding Jang as “despicable human scum ... worse than a dog,” the KCNA report said he had attempted to stand in the way of Kim Jong Un’s succession and then targeted him with a planned coup.

North Korea confirmed earlier this week that Jang, who was married to Kim Jong Il’s sister, had been stripped of all posts, and branded him as a drug-using womanizer who squandered millions in state funds at foreign casinos.

During the court hearing, Jang reportedly confessed that he had attempted to stage a coup by mobilizing his associates in the military.

“I was going to stage the coup by using army officers who had close ties with me or by mobilizing armed forces under the control of my confidants,” KCNA quoted him as saying.

“I attempted to trigger discontent among service personnel and people when the present regime does not take any measure despite the fact that the economy of the country and people’s living are driven into catastrophe.”

South Korea’s spy agency told the National Assembly that the worst purge in decades in the Stalinist state masks its chronic instability.

If the North fails to reorganize the power structure smoothly and improve people’s living standards, it will face increasing difficulties in sustaining the regime, it said.

However, many analysts believe Jang’s purge demonstrates Kim’s confidence in power, having established his own coterie which has taken precedence over the old guard.

“Jang Song Thaek was his regent and he decided that he doesn’t need him anymore – he can rule North Korea on his own,” said Abraham Denmark from the National Bureau of Asian Research, a U.S. think tank.

But he said that the dramatic response also suggested Jang could have posed a real challenge to Kim’s absolute power.

“The difference between just dismissing somebody and executing him is, obviously, to make sure he can’t come back and doesn’t pose a threat,” he said.

Since the death of his father in late 2010, five out of seven leaders who joined the young leader in marching alongside his father’s hearse at the funeral – a core leadership group dubbed “the Gang of Seven” by South Korean media – have been sidelined.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on December 14, 2013, on page 8.
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