The North Korean state media has reported that Jang Song Thaek, once thought to be the No. 2 leader of the country, was executed. A special military tribunal had found him guilty of treasonous activities and other crimes. Never before has Pyongyang announced the execution of a member of the ruling Kim family. Jang, 67, was married to the aunt of the country’s leader, Kim Jong Un.
Why did Kim have Jang killed? It may have been personal. Jang introduced Kim to his eventual wife, Ri Sol Ju. According to a growing number of accounts, Jang also had an affair with her. Furthermore, there are reports that Jang and Ri were somehow involved in a sex tape. In any event, she has not been seen in public since October. Kim Kyong Hui, Kim’s aunt, supposedly approved the execution of her husband. Most of this narrative remains unconfirmed, but this storyline makes understandable Kim’s surprise—and unprecedented—decision to put to death a family member. Moreover, this narrative explains the charge against Jang of “womanizing.”
Whether or not a personal feud has turned deadly, the regime may be unraveling. London’s Telegraph believes that the ailing Kim Kyong Hui may be the next regime figure to be purged. There is one report that five of Jang Song Thaek’s aides were executed with him—two were known to have been put to death in the middle of last month—and one Chinese-language news site maintains that “recently” two vice premiers have fled to China seeking asylum.
In any event, Jang has dozens of allies among top regime officials, and, as Korea-watcher Bruce Bechtol notes, his patronage network started in Pyongyang and reached down to municipalities across the country. Because of Kim Jong Un’s brutality, Jang’s allies and friends know that they, along with their families, will be either executed or sent to concentration camps. Their choice now is either to run or fight. More blood will undoubtedly flow.
The unraveling of the regime creates three great risks for the international community. First, the Korean People’s Army seems to have come out on top after having been sidelined by Jang Song Thaek acting as regent for nephew Kim Jong Un.
The resurgence of the military means, among other things, that belligerent generals and admirals could be given latitude to do what they want. Many believe that North Korea’s two deadly assaults against South Korea in 2010—the sinking of the frigate Cheonan in March and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island in November—were the direct result of succession politics in the North Korean capital. We can expect attacks at this time as Kim Jong Un—or someone else—seeks to claim what passes for the high ground in Pyongyang by again killing foreigners.
Second, when willful men and women have nothing to lose in a Richard III-like drama, we can rule out little, especially because the international community is in the dark about the control of the North’s chemical, biological, and nuclear arsenals. Presumably, the Korean People’s Army remains relatively united, but Kim’s and Jang’s earlier purges of the military have created fissures that may not have completely healed.
Third, the current purge is leaving North Korea even more isolated. Jang Song Thaek promoted economic ties with Beijing, and one of the listed treasonous acts was letting his aide sell off “precious minerals,” an obvious reference to China’s purchases. Moreover, Jang was charged with giving a concession to a foreign country in a special zone, another poke at the Chinese. At a time of crisis, Kim Jong Un has apparently decided to make China the enemy-of-the-moment.
Beijing has to be concerned that it has ended up on Kim’s bad side, overnight losing most of its influence in Pyongyang. And there must also be angst in Washington, which has, since 2003, relied on the Chinese to rein in their troublesome ally for us. With China out of the picture in the North Korean capital—at least temporarily—American policymakers must be scrambling to come up with a new approach.
After the execution of Jang Song Thaek, it looks like everything is going south in North Korea. And what may have started out as a blood feud inside the Kim family could shake more than just the regime.
Gordon G. Chang is the author of Nuclear Showdown: North Korea Takes On the World. Follow him on Twitter @GordonGChang.