North Korea continues to be an enigma wrapped in mystery. There was some hope that the ascension to power of Western-educated Kim Jong-un would help bring this state out of its seclusion, but that hope has been dashed. But now comes more disturbing news from Pyongyang – that Kim Jong-un had decided to destroy his once powerful uncle, Jang Song-Thaek, most likely at the bidding of hardliners in the military. Jang, who had been seen as Kim’s political regent and the country’s unofficial number two, was executed on Thursday immediately after a special military trial. He was accused of committing such a hideous crime as attempting to overthrow the state by all sorts of ‘intrigues and despicable methods with a wild ambition to grab the supreme power of the party and state’.
That a leader like Jang is executed in North Korea speaks of the ruthlessness of the current dictator. Jang, 67, played a key role in strengthening the leadership of the inexperienced Kim when he succeeded his father Kim Jong-Il in 2011. By executing him, Kim has even gone against the advice of his father. When the late Kim Jong-il knew he was dying, he appointed Jang and Kim Kyong-hui, the most powerful figures in the Korean Workers’ party organisations, to serve as regents and to supervise the transition of power. He even insisted that they be given top posts in the military which controls most of the country’s economy. Also, Jang had performed many powerful roles in the past. He was in charge of finding the money to finance the regime, which he is supposed to have done by negotiating for foreign aid or by selling missiles, nuclear knowhow, drugs or other contraband.
Experts are trying to read the meaning and analyse the consequences of Jang’s execution. Nothing can be said with certainty about goings-on in the state, but many believe the latest development indicates many things: first, a power struggle in the state in which the executed leader was on the wrong side; secondly, it indicates the emergence of the hardliners in the military. The decision to execute a mentor can’t be easy and if Kim has done that, it shows the draconian influence some people have over Kim. This could also be a message to foreign powers, including China. The executed uncle was in charge of dealing with foreign powers. Talks with South Korea and Beijing are now in trouble, and this could further puncture peace in the region, which is already volatile and tense due to sabre-rattling by China.
While people all over the world are breaking away dictatorship, North Koreans are finding themselves shackled from all sides. And the world can just watch helplessly•