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N. Korean power politics get more ruthless

By The Citizen
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Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of Bruce Klingner, Senior Research Fellow for Northeast Asia at The Heritage Foundation. He previously served 20 years with the CIA, where he was deputy division chief for Korea, responsible for the analysis of political, military, economic and leadership issues for the U.S. president and other senior policymakers.

Washington D.C. (CNN) - Pyongyang announced on December 12 the trial and execution of Jang Sung-taek, former vice chairman of the powerful National Defense Commission and uncle to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

Although Kim has already purged hundreds of officials during his two year reign, Jang’s ouster is highly unusual, even by North Korean standards. Jang is married to the sister of the late leader Kim Jong-il and it had been expected he would be safe from a purge until after her death. In the past, when members of the North Korean senior leadership strata were purged, they usually simply stopped appearing in North Korean media. Instead, the BBC and other media reports showed that Jang was first erased from existing official photos and videos in tactics reminiscent of the Stalin-era Soviet Union.

North Korea stability fears after execution
Jang was arrested during a special meeting of the leadership with the photos and lengthy list of his crimes promulgated to the North Korean public. That Jang was executed was also rare for someone in the inner circle of power.

While Kim is emulating the power politics of his father and grandfather, he has taken it to new levels of brutality. In addition to Jang — previously referred to as the “second most powerful man in North Korea,” Kim replaced both the minister of defense and chairman of the general staff. Clearly, no one is safe from Kim’s wrath.

According to South Korean media reports, Kim Chol, the vice minister of the army, was executed last year per Kim’s dictate to leave “no trace of him, not even his hair,” though it is not clear exactly how he was killed. Some reports suggest he was executed with a mortar round during the official mourning period after Kim Jong-il’s death.

Jang — the “despicable human scum who was worse than a dog” — was accused of plotting a coup to “overthrow the state [and] to grab the supreme power of our party and state.” Perhaps. But had Jang wanted to grab the ring of power he would have had more success immediately after Kim’s father’s death in December 2011, before his son acquired the six titles conferring power over the state, party, and military.

How Kim Jong Un got rid of his uncle
It is more likely that the accusation of treason — as well as the litany of his personal foibles of gambling, drugs, womanizing, pornography, and drinking — were to undermine Jang’s reputation and justify the execution.