Swift, brutal fall of powerful North Korean father figure a sign of purges to come

Kim Jong-un’s uncle machine-gunned to death four days after surprise arrest

Jang Song-Thaek's decline and fall, from powerful svengali atop the secretive Pyongyang political apparatus to his machine gunning to death as a traitor described as "worse than a dog" and "human scum", is a classic purge showing the Machiavellian side of young leader Kim Jong-un.

His fall was swift, brutal and highly public. Rumours that Jang was in trouble began last week among South Korean intelligence officers. By Sunday, the 67-year-old had been fired from all posts at a special Workers Party meeting and was publicly dragged away by soldiers.

Four days after his dramatic public arrest, Jang was tried for treason by a special military tribunal and executed on Thursday.

The official news agency KCNA released a remarkable, 70-word list of his crimes, and they do not look particularly convincing, including economic corruption, financial mismanagement, pursuing a “decadent, capitalist lifestyle”, gambling and disobeying the military.


The most serious was plotting to overthrow the leadership by staging a coup and seeking to seize "the supreme power of the party and state". Jang confessed, according to state media, and he is not expected to be the last victim of what could now be a wide-ranging purge.

It shows a ruthlessness that had not been evident before, a very different side to the leader who wined and dined former basketball star Dennis Rodman. And as a standing member of the Political Bureau, he helped engineer a campaign to bring the once-powerful military into the party's fold.

Jang was considered the chief architect of economic policy that focused on partnering with China, the North's neighbour and most significant ally. He was purged and sent to a labour camp for two years in the mid-2000s before returning to the leadership fold.

His recent very public humiliation, including images of him being physically removed from a meeting of the ruling Workers’ Party, was meant to send a message to the North Korean people that no one is innocent, that opposition will not be tolerated, even of a father figure who helped shepherd Kim Jong-un into power.

"Chances are high that the authorities have already detained Jang's aides, and we can expect a widespread purge," Chang Yong-seok, a senior researcher at the Institute for Peace and Unification Studies at Seoul National University, told the Korea Times.

“As there are still Jang followers with substantial influence on the regime, Kim Jong-un is highly expected to continue his reigning style.”

John Swenson-Wright, senior consulting fellow, Asia Programme at Chatham House, described the purge as a "brutal but risky move", aimed at asserting Kim's political primacy, and pointing to a shift towards an increasingly centralised and personalised system of rule.

"Mr Chang's swift and bloody elimination [unconfirmed reports talk of him having been executed by machine-gun], some four days after he was shown on state television being dragged out of a meeting of the politburo, is relatively rare in a country where the leadership, notwithstanding its past authoritarian crackdowns, has tended to remove political opponents with limited fanfare," said Mr Swenson-Wright.

"Today's announcement appears to be a throwback to the 1950s, when such uncompromising personal purges were more commonplace."

Kim Yong-hyun, a professor of North Korea studies at Dongguk University, believes the purge of Jang's associates is likely to start with the Central Administrative Department of the ruling Workers' Party.

"Since Jang assumed the position of chief of the Central Administrative Department of the Workers' Party, the party's major senior officials may be at the top of the purge list," Kim Yong-hyun told the Korea Times.

North Korea’s official news agency KCNA also seemed to indicate that there were more oustings to happen there. “Our service personnel and people will never pardon all those who dare disobey the unitary leadership of Kim Jong-un,” it said. Jang’s allies Ri Ryong-ha and Jang Su-gil, both of whom were executed in mid-November, were the first-deputy director of the Central Administrative Department and a deputy director of the same department.