- By Isaac Stone FishIsaac Stone Fish is a journalist and senior fellow at the Asia Society’s Center on U.S-China Relations. He is on sabbatical from Foreign Policy Magazine., Elias GrollElias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy, covering cyberspace and its conflicts and controversies. He has written for the magazine since 2012 and is a graduate of Harvard University.
Jang Song Taek, the brother-in-law of late Supreme Leader Kim Jong Il, the uncle of current leader Kim Jong Un, and a savvy politician who was thought to have been the second-most powerful man in North Korea, has been reportedly executed for planning a coup. Jang "is a traitor to the nation for all ages," according to the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), the country’s main news agency, which released the news on the morning of Friday Dec. 13 Korea time.
The English-language article details, in almost Biblical prose, the devastation Jang allegedly wrought on North Korea. He did serious harm to the country’s youth by patronizing traitors, or "cat’s paws." For Jang’s "unpardonable thrice-cursed treason," people throughout the country "broke out into angry shouts," hungering for justice, the article claims. And "every sentence" of the decision describing his crimes served as a "sledge-hammer blow brought down … on the head of Jang."
The website also offered the story in Korean, Spanish, Chinese, and Japanese. The Chinese and Spanish versions both contain additional information: The Spanish version claims he stole and then "wasted" $4.6 million Euros, much of it at a foreign casino. It further claims that he was involved in an alleged scheme with top finance official Pak Nam Gi, who was reportedly executed in 2010 for the country’s failed currency reform, that injected "hundreds of billions" of national currency into the economy, causing turmoil and upheaval.
"I planned to execute the coup by mobilizing military cadres that I know well or the armed forces controlled by my men," Jang is quoted as saying in the Spanish version of the KCNA story announcing his execution. "I thought that if living conditions were worsened for citizens and soldiers, the army would join the coup."
The Chinese version added that he was executed in accordance with Article 60 of DPRK’s criminal law, a legalistic flourish. "The Special Military Court of North Korea’s National Security Department confirms that defendant Jang Sung Taek is an enemy," the article says. "The court severely denounces Jang Sung Taek in the name of the revolution and the people as a politically ambitious conspirator and eternal traitor, and sentences him to death."
North Korea is obsessed with titles, accolades, and awards. Generals are sometimes photographed with their chests blanketed with medals. A massive building in the North Korean mountains features a collection of the thousands of gifts foreign dignitaries bestowed on the Kim dynasty’s first two rulers, Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. In a sign of how far he has fallen, the KCNA release calls him "despicable human scum Jang, who was worse than a dog."
It’s impossible to confirm if Jang was in fact executed and nearly impossible to say what this means for North Korea, the most opaque of nations. It could hurt ties with China, North Korea’s most important benefactor, as Jang was seen as the point man for bilateral ties. In August 2012 Jang visited and met with the country’s two top leaders, then-President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao — a contrast with Kim, who has never met with a foreign leader. Following Kim Jong Il’s 2008 stroke, it was thought that Jang largely ran the country. And many North Korea watchers thought that it was Jang who groomed the youngest Kim for his ascension to the DPRK’s top leadership position. As a result, Jang was seen as the power behind the throne.
Domestically, perhaps if Kim is firmly at the helm he’ll be able to steer the country in a more stable direction. Or this could be the harbinger of great upheaval. A regime can, of course, survive after the public execution of its second most powerful member. During China’s anarchic Cultural Revolution, Liu Shaoqi, the country’s president, junior only to Mao Zedong himself, was arrested, publically humiliated, brutally beaten, and left to die in prison. Despite the chaos of that ten-year-period, the Chinese Communist Party has survived and now enjoys a level of stability that Kim probably envies. The government of Kim Jong Il survived years of disastrous famine, which killed hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people.
Kim Jong Un’s rule will likely survive the aftermath of this execution as well, but it won’t be pretty.