There has been a dramatic shake-up in North Korea’s leadership this week. The uncle of 30-year-old dictator Kim Jong Un was arrested and tried on charges of treason. The trial lasted less than a day, and once a “confession” had been extracted from Jang Song Thaek, he was executed.
In an unusual move, North Korea’s state-run press then trumpeted the execution. Rumors of high-level executions often trickle out of Pyongyang. They seldom if ever make it into the state-run mouthpiece.
Jang Song Thaek was thought to be the second most powerful figure in North Korea, eclipsed only by Kim himself. He was often photographed alongside Kim and was vice chairman of the reclusive dictatorship’s top military body.
Earlier in the week, two of Jang’s allies were also executed. He had previously removed dozens of lower-level officials in the party and the North Korean military and dismissed many of the officials who held power during his father’s reign. Now with Jang gone too, Kim has probably strengthened his grip on power. He inherited power when his father, Kim Jong Il, died in 2011.
The charges Kim used to kill off Jang include treason, “double dealing,” womanizing, drug use, eating at expensive restaurants, and even seeking medical treatment outside North Korea.
North Korea’s opaque, paranoid Stalinist government is notoriously difficult to read from the outside. Kim’s grip on power may be stronger today, or it may have been weak and challenged from within by Jang, his allies, and others, prompting Kim to move against them, kill them, and intimidate anyone else who has designs on weakening or ousting him.