SEOUL » 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 allegations from corruption to womanizing 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.
Jang was seen as a regent figure as Kim Jong Un was being groomed to succeed his father. He rose in party and military ranks alongside his baby-faced nephew, often dressed in a trim white general’s uniform and standing within arm’s length of Kim on field visits and at state events.
In 2012, he led a business delegation to China to discuss the construction of special economic zones. He also served as chairman of the State Physical Culture and Sports Guidance Commission, which oversees many of Kim Jong Un’s pet projects.
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 TV 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.
This time, there was no white general’s uniform: Jang was dressed in civilian wear and sitting in the audience, not with the rest of the leadership. Party members watched impassively, barely flinching or raising an eyebrow, as two burly men grabbed Jang.
State media laid out a laundry list of Jang’s alleged transgressions, including instigating party dissent and squandering party funds on drugs, gambling and women. He was branded "depraved" for living a "capitalist" lifestyle.
North Koreans sometimes "disappear" for re-education and re-emerge later, and Jang has been purged before. He dropped out of sight for a few years in the mid-2000s, reportedly for going too far with fledgling economic reforms under Kim Jong Il. But Monday’s pillorying was unprecedented, and a startling show for a regime that typically keeps its internal politics secret.
Privately, few among North Korea’s elite would be shocked by Jang’s alleged behavior in "back parlors of deluxe restaurants," as described in state media. Korea has a rich tradition of aristocratic misbehavior, and that culture of "wining and dining," preferably with a pretty woman who is not your wife pouring your drinks, persists in both South and North Korea even today.
But Monday’s announcement in state media also hinted that Jang was trying to challenge the party status quo. It said he committed anti-party, counterrevolutionary acts and "pretended to uphold the party and leader" while double-dealing behind the scenes.
By publicly punishing Jang, Kim is warning Pyongyang’s elites that loyalty to him is the only loyalty that matters: The dispatch said the purge would extend to supporters of Jang but did not provide details.
Jang’s expulsion raises the question of what will happen to his Jang’s wife, Kim Kyong Hui. As the sole remaining offspring of North Korea’s founder, she is a key figure in a leadership hierarchy that stresses the Kim family bloodlines in their claim to legitimacy. North Koreans and foreign observers will be keeping close watch for her appearance at memorials marking the second anniversary of Kim Jong Il’s death Dec. 17.
The purge of Jang also calls into question how aggressively North Korea will push forward on the ambitious economic projects that he championed. The excoriation of Jang’s business dealings is a sign that the leadership is uncomfortable with the loss of state control that may come with economic growth. The incident also reveals the internal instability in North Korea despite the regime’s efforts to display an image of unity.
Since Kim took power, the party has portrayed him as a leader who cares about the people. He has ordered the construction of parks, swimming pools and skating rinks. The supply of heat and electricity has improved, at least in Pyongyang. Food is more plentiful.
He also rails regularly against corruption and laziness, and has called national meetings of key agencies in a bid to restore order. Those efforts have strengthened the intricate web of laws governing how North Koreans live — and the punishment for those who break them.
Despite Jang’s ouster, foreigners in Pyongyang said it appeared to be business as usual Monday.
North Koreans are expert at adopting a mask of neutrality when necessary, but the arrest has undoubtedly struck fear in many normally stoic hearts.