Execution of Kim Jong Un’s uncle recalls grandfather’s lethal era

Jang Song Thaek, with his hands tied with a rope, is dragged into court by uniformed personnel in this picture published in a North Korean newspaper. Rodong Sinmun / Yonhap via Reuters

News analysis

BEIJING – North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's highly scripted execution of his uncle makes one thing abundantly clear: Two years after taking power, the training wheels are now off for the world's youngest head of state. He truly is his grandfather's son.

Kim's uncle by marriage, Jang Song Taek, was executed Thursday for treason, the country's state-run news service said in a dramatic announcement which characterized him as "despicable human scum." He had also been accused of corruption, womanizing, gambling and taking drugs.

Chinese President Hu Jintao, right, meets with Jang Song Thaek, left, uncle of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Beijing Friday, Aug. 17, 2012. Ma Zhancheng / Xinhua via AP, file

Rampant theories began circling immediately, chief among them the speculation that it was the start or end of a power struggle within the hermit kingdom.

Ultimately Jang's extremely public removal was an anachronism – a throwback to the lethal, high-level purges conducted in the 1950s by his grandfather and the nation's founder, Kim Il Sung.

In the years that followed, though, top officials in North Korea soon found themselves privy to an unspoken pact with their leader: Make it to the highest levels of power and while you may be purged for your transgressions, seldom will you be executed.

"Historically North Korea was unique in one regard: It was a Stalinist dictatorship where high-level officials were seldom killed," North Korea expert and Kookmin University professor Dr. Andrei Lankov said Friday. "If you look at the history of North Korea after 1960, you will discover that if you were lucky to belong to the top 100, you were generally secure physically."

"People who were purged would lose their jobs and occasionally their freedom," noted Lankov. "But it was very unusual… that a purged official was killed."

Jang, 67, was seen by many North Korea watchers as a regent of sorts behind the Kim dynasty and the main conduit between the isolated nation and its biggest trade partner and only ally, China. With his death come serious questions – many of which have plausible answers on both sides of the debate.

Does his purging consolidate 30-year-old Kim's power or does it perhaps expose previously unseen cracks? Does Jang's death signal a repudiation of Chinese-style economic reform or perhaps a reinterpretation of such reform under Kim's personal supervision? Will the removal of Jang take a toll on the relationship with China or is there potential for greater stability and cooperation through a strengthened Kim?

Uncle of Kim Jong Un executed 2:30

On the latter question, China's North Korea experts have been working furiously to come up with consensus. One expert reached by NBC News grudgingly let out that many of his peers had been called in by China's Foreign Ministry Fridaymorning to decide that very issue.

The result was a tame response from the Foreign Ministry that declared the toppling of Jang as a "domestic issue" and renewed hopes that cooperation and close ties would continue.

Jang's denouncement this week was not the first time he had been purged: In 2004 he fell from grace before being rehabilitated and brought back to power in 2006. For many, this most recent purge was an inevitable step the younger Kim needed to take to further consolidate his power and ensure that the elder would be sent into relative anonymity again.

But the very public and extreme denunciation of Jang on North Korean state television earlier this week -- and again on Friday morning when his execution was announced -- strongly suggests that Kim Jong Un will not brook any challenge to his authority, even from family.

It also puts North Korean officialdom on notice that the once unspoken pact has been severed.

"If he has to go as high as purging and then executing Jang, it tells you that everything's not normal," Victor Cha, a former senior White House adviser on Asia told The Associated Press.

"When you take out Jang, you're not taking out just one person -- you're taking out scores if not hundreds of other people in the system," he added. "It's got to have some ripple effect."

In the years since he's taken power, Kim has worked hard to cultivate a more approachable persona for his people. Video clips of him enjoying Disney characters dancing, supervising the opening of sports facilities for the people and having his wife escort him to state events as near equals humanized him in ways his father, Kim Jong Il, took pains to avoid.

This brutal, but perfectly Machiavellian move clearly shows he is prepared to continue in the footsteps of the Kim dynasty.