Asia

North Korea Executes Kim’s 'Human Scum' Uncle


Commuters read the news of Jang Song Thaek's execution at a station in Pyongyang, on Dec. 13

Photograph by David Guttenfelder/AP Photo

Commuters read the news of Jang Song Thaek's execution at a station in Pyongyang, on Dec. 13

And you thought your crazy uncle was bad. Spare a moment for North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who turns out to have an uncle who was much worse, at least according to the country’s official news agency. Jang Song Thaek, until recently the second-most powerful man in North Korea after Kim himself, was “despicable human scum,” the Korean Central News Agency reported, “who was worse than a dog [and] perpetrated thrice-cursed acts of treachery.”

North Koreans can all relax now, though, because Kim has saved them from his awful uncle. Jang is dead, executed after a speedy trial for treason and other crimes. The North may be in the midst of the biggest purge in more than half a century, but the country’s propagandists haven’t lost their touch: The ruling Workers’ Party of Korea has “fully laid bare the anti-party, counter-revolutionary factional acts of the chance elements and alien elements who had made their ways into the party,” according to KCNA. The party has dealt “a decisive blow at dangerous factional acts by resolutely purging Jang Song Thaek and his group that dared expand its forces in the party to challenge the party in a bid to undermine the unitary leadership of the party in the historic period of carrying forward the revolutionary cause of Juche.”

It’s unclear how China, which provides the support the regime needs to survive, feels about Jang’s demise. “A shake-up like this has not been seen in North Korea since the late 1950s,” Columbia University professor Charles Armstrong told Bloomberg News. The uncle was a member of a “China wing” of the North Korean leadership, according to Armstrong, so President Xi Jinping and others in Beijing might be unhappy with Jang’s downfall. The Xinhua News Agency’s report on his execution sticks to the basics, citing a report from KCNA.

Jang’s purge could be a sign of major change ahead for the North Korean economy. The country is in the midst of what North Korea expert Rüdiger Frank, a professor of East Asian economy and society at the University of Vienna, calls “a construction boom of dimensions not seen in the 22 years I have been following events in North Korea.” Writing on 38north.org, a website focusing on North Korea, Frank says Pyongyang now also has more cars, mobile phones, air conditioners, and other signs of increased wealth among ordinary residents.

There are limits to what Kim can achieve by fiat, though. “The sudden increase in unproductive state spending without being preceded or at least accompanied by major changes in economic policy, a.k.a. reforms, suggests that the North Korean state is living on its reserves,” writes Frank. “Once they are depleted, trouble is inevitable.”

Trouble may come in the beginning of “the long-predicted endgame for North Korea,” he writes. Or Kim’s ouster of his uncle …

“… shows that Kim Jong Un himself is aware that his economic policies have reached a critical point. The numerous hints at Jang squandering the country’s resources and obstructing the economic policy of the Cabinet indicate that the uncle is supposed to be a scapegoat for an expected economic downturn or the excuse for a drastic change in economic policy. This change could take the form of a scaling back of the past two year’s costly largesse and a return to the muddle-through strategy that North Korea has pursued for such a long time. Better yet, Kim Jong Un may have decided to finally liberate the economic potential of his country by introducing bold reforms.”

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Einhorn is Asia regional editor in Bloomberg Businessweek’s Hong Kong bureau. Follow him on Twitter @BruceEinhorn.

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