While the rest of North Korea’s top brass leaped to their feet before Kim Jong Un, clapping wildly in a requisite show of respect at high-level meetings, his uncle, Jang Song Thaek, often seemed nonchalant, at times even bored. Once considered the force behind the young leader, he displayed a bold insouciance that seemed calculated to show he was beyond reach.
So by purging his own uncle, Kim has delivered a more chilling message: No one is beyond reach, not even family.
Jang’s fall from grace, accompanied by various allegations and capped by his dramatic arrest at a party meeting Sunday, has no doubt spooked Pyongyang’s elite. It also suggests Kim is still trying to consolidate the power he inherited from his father two years ago.
This is far from Kim’s first purge. Several defense ministers and army chiefs have been replaced as the Workers’ Party has asserted control over the military after 17 years of military-first rule under late leader Kim Jong Il.
But it is the ouster of Jang, who had been considered North Korea’s second-most-powerful figure, that sends the strongest signal to anyone seeking to challenge Kim Jong Un.
Jang, 67, had occupied a privileged and yet precarious spot within the inner circle. He is the husband of Kim Kyong Hui, the only daughter of late President Kim Il Sung, younger sister to Kim Jong Il and aunt to Kim Jong Un.
Last week, South Korea’s spy agency gave the first public word that Jang may have been dismissed. It said he had not been seen publicly in weeks and his two closest confidants executed.
North Korean state media has not confirmed the executions, but on Monday it made vividly clear that Jang is out. Images aired on state media showed him being stripped of all his titles at Sunday’s party meeting led by Kim. Premier Pak Pong Ju was in tears as he denounced his longtime friend.
North Koreans sometimes “disappear” for re-education and re-emerge later, but Monday’s pillorying was unprecedented, and a startling show for a regime that typically keeps its internal politics secret.