Pyongyang announced the trial and execution of Jang Song-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.
Jang is married to the sister of late leader Kim Jong-il and it had been expected he was safe from a purge until after her death. When members of the senior leadership strata were purged, they simply stopped appearing in North Korean media. Instead, Jang was first erased from existing official photos and videos in tactics reminiscent of Stalin-era Soviet Union. Then Jang was arrested with the photos and the lengthy list of his crimes announced to the North Korean public. Jang’s execution was also unprecedented for someone in the inner circle of power.
While Kim Jong-un 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 three times each. Clearly, no one is safe from Kim’s wrath.
If there was any lingering naive doubt that Jong-un would be just as merciless as his father and grandfather, it died along with Jang Song-taek. During his two years in power, Kim Jong-un has escalated the subjugation of the populace. He has increased public executions, expanded the gulags for political prisoners, and increased government punishment for anyone caught with information from the outside world.
Earlier this year, Kim showed that he is willing to go even higher than his father in raising tension on the Korean Peninsula. Pyongyang threatened Washington, Seoul and Tokyo with nuclear annihilation as well as warned of tactical attacks on South Korean targets. He defied U.N. Security Council resolutions by conducting nuclear and long-range missile launches and was credited by the official media as being the mastermind behind Pyongyang’s two deadly attacks on South Korea in 2010.
The United States should have no illusions about Kim Jong-un. His government vows it will never abandon its nuclear weapons and Pyongyang continues to augment and refine its nuclear and missile arsenals. South Korea’s minister of defense assesses Pyongyang’s missiles can already reach the continental United States. The North Korean threat — always high — has gotten worse under Kim Jong-un. He is just as dangerous as his father … and less predictable.