- By Alicia P.Q. WittmeyerAlicia P.Q. Wittmeyer is assistant managing editor at Foreign Policy., Elias GrollElias Groll is an assistant editor at Foreign Policy. A native of Stockholm, Sweden, he received his undergraduate degree from Harvard University, where he was the managing editor of The Harvard Crimson.
To understand what makes the fanfare surrounding the purge of Jang Song Thaek — Kim Jong Un’s uncle and regent — so different, it helps to look back a few years to the recent purge and supposed execution of another high-profile North Korean official: Pak Nam Gi.
When the time came for Pak — a high-ranking party official who was held responsible for a botched 2009 currency devaluation that left an already fragile economy reeling — there were no state-owned news reports translated into multiple languages, laced with attention-grabbing language like "thrice-cursed treason." There were no photographs made public of him being dragged out by the arms in front of his comrades and no execution announcement.
There were only North Korea watchers doing their best to peer into the black box: reports citing unnamed sources, experts noting how long it had been since Pak had last appeared in public. Most reports said he’d been executed. Others would later claim he’d resurfaced.
Not so with Jang. This time, in an unprecedented move, the North Korean government sought to lay all doubts to rest about Jang’s fate in a bizarre, nearly three thousand word statement that took the state-owned new agency’s tendency toward purple prose to new heights to accuse Jang of everything from seeking to stage a coup to gambling away foreign currency at casinos.
The statement announcing his execution is a blistering document and a marvel of communist rhetoric, as astounding in its news value as in its language. If North Korea weren’t a deeply atheistic nation it might be easily described as Biblical: "The era and history will eternally record and never forget the shuddering crimes committed by Jang Song Thaek, the enemy of the party, revolution and people and heinous traitor to the nation."
But Christianity, of course, is nowhere to be found in today’s North Korea; rather, that language serves another purpose entirely. "The rhetoric of eternity … opens onto not only the myth of a perpetual, self-reliant state, but also the way in which North Korea’s cult of leadership calls for hereditary succession to uphold a so-called people’s republic," Eric Song, an assistant professor of literature at Swarthmore College, wrote in in an email to FP. "These two notions — hereditary rule and a people’s republic — are contradictory, and the KCNA release manifests this contradiction by casting Jang Song Thaek’s crimes against the state as a betrayal of ‘paternal love.’"
The regime last saw public purges of this nature under Kim’s grandfather, Kim Il Sung, during the foundational years of the democratic people’s republic, when he was still seeking to consolidate his power. Under Kim Jong Il, analysts believe the regime continued to use purges and even executions as a political tool. But they were quiet, low-profile affairs, that took care not to disturb the image of unity the dynasty sought to preserve.
"They always kind of tried to hide … what didn’t fit their narrative," said John Delury, a senior fellow at the Center on U.S.-China Relations and an assistant professor of international studies at Yonsei University in Seoul.
By contrast, this time around, the propaganda machine has presented the world with a story of factions and treachery. "I attempted to trigger off discontent among service personnel and people that the present regime does not take any measure despite the fact that the economy of the country and people’s living are driven into catastrophe," KCNA quotes Jang as telling his interrogators. "Comrade supreme leader is the target of the coup."
The stern, infallible father at the top of the Korean political pyramid — Kim Jong Un — was thus betrayed by his allegedly recalcitrant son. But that mythology of Korean politics also creates a problem for carrying out purges. If the leader is infallible, why would functionaries rebel in the first place?
As a result, the elimination of rivals — perceived or real — have typically been carried out with an eye toward keeping them low-profile. Those trying to understand events in the closed-off country are forced to resort to guessing at the meaning of the subtlest of signals.
"You literally watch for someone not reappearing," Delury said. "In some cases, that’s all — nothing’s ever said."
Whether Jang in fact planned to execute a coup or whether he was eliminated in an effort by Kim Jong Un to consolidate power — or some other scenario – remains unknown, but in the words of the KCNA, he is now a traitor for all eternity.
David Guttenfelder, the AP’s chief Asia photographer, happened to be in Pyongyang for the announcement of Jang’s execution. He captured this scene in a subway station in the capital city as residents took in the news of Jang’s purge.
That man’s bewildered look is as insightful an analysis as any.