- - Thursday, December 12, 2013

SEOUL — Official reports about the execution of the uncle and onetime mentor of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un raised questions Friday about the totalitarian regime’s stability and the mercurial leader’s mindset.

North Korean state media reported that Jang Song-thaek, widely regarded as Mr. Kim’s top adviser and the second most powerful official in Pyongyang, was executed after a military tribunal found him guilty of attempting to overthrow the government. Days earlier, Mr. Jang was publicly stripped of his titles during a meeting and accused of corruption, womanizing and drug use.

“There are two speculations: One is that North Korea was trying to show Kim’s power,” said Choi Jin-wook, senior North Korea researcher at Seoul’s Korea Institute of National Unification. “On the other hand, we do not understand why [Mr. Kim] was so cruel. It may not have been designed by Kim himself. It may be other factions, particularly the military, and if that is true, then this may not contribute to the power of Kim. On the contrary, he may be weaker after this.”

But Daniel Pinkston, who heads the Seoul chapter of the International Crisis Group, is convinced that Mr. Jang’s execution proves that the young Mr. Kim is highly confident after having taken full control of major state agencies by inserting his own appointees into key positions.

“This will have a chilling effect throughout the system, and though it will ruffle a lot of feathers, I think Kim has done the groundwork,” Mr. Pinkston said. “He has been covering his bases with the security apparatus. I think he was pre-planning before this was done, and this is the end of it. His people tend to be rising people in the military and the party — a younger generation.”

Mr. Pinkston, who recently visited North Korea, added that the Kim personality cult is “more intense than ever — hyper-intense.”

Mr. Jang, 67, was married to Mr. Kim’s aunt and was regarded as an experienced political, diplomatic and business operator; he was often compared to a “regent” behind his nephew’s “throne.”

His eventual ouster had been long anticipated by observers of the North Korean regime, as Mr. Kim gained experience and took on more power. But his fall from grace last week came earlier than expected.

Though purges are common in North Korea, and Mr. Kim has replaced a large number of senior officers and officials since assuming office two years ago, the humiliating and high-profile manner of Mr. Jang’s removal — dragged out of a televised party meeting by troops — and the report of his execution shocked observers.

“A lot of Kim family members have been sidelined over the years, but I think this is the first time one has been executed,” said Mike Breen, a biographer of Kim Jong-il. “It sounds like Jang was trying to mount a coup or something. If this was about money, they could just have taken it away from him.”

According to North Korea’s official news agency KCNA, Mr. Jang confessed to trying to overthrow the government as an “anti-party, counterrevolutionary factional element” before he was condemned to execution. The report also noted kickback schemes, decadent living and disagreements with Mr. Kim as reasons for his downfall.

Chris Green, international manager for Daily NK, a defector-staffed online newspaper in Seoul, said the execution shows that Mr. Kim believes he is ready to lead the secretive nation as his own man.

“What it boils down to is an authoritarian power grab by Kim and forces allied closely with him,” Mr. Green said. “This has been predictable ever since Kim came to power with Jang as one of his guardians in late 2011, since it is an essential feature of the North Korean power structure that only one person can be in charge.”

The suddenness of the execution is indicative of the unpredictable nature of North Korea’s leadership.

Last week, North Korea deported without explanation an 85-year-old American veteran it had detained since late October, extracting from him in the interim a videotaped confession of and apology for his activities during the Korean War. Merrill Newman said his statements were given under duress.

Meanwhile, North Korea continues to hold a 45-year-old Korean-American Christian missionary despite several U.S. diplomatic efforts to gain his release. Kenneth Bae was arrested in November 2012 and charged with attempting to undermine the totalitarian regime.

In August, a singer for a performing group known as Mr. Kim’s former girlfriend reportedly was executed by a firing squad. Hyon Song-wol and 11 other members of the Unhasu Orchestra and the Wangjaesan Light Music Band had been charged with making and selling pornographic videos of themselves.

North Korea’s top governing agency, the National Defense Commission, suddenly offered a proposal in June to enter high-level security talks with the U.S. after it rejected such talks with South Korea.

In his role as Mr. Kim’s mentor, Mr. Jang was particularly vulnerable.

He was regarded by many as “the richest man in North Korea.” He and his cronies — two of whom reportedly were executed in November — controlled a range of businesses in an economy that has, since the state distribution system collapsed during the famines of the late 1990s, been turning capitalist in all but name, and corruption is rampant.

North Korea now is probably the most corrupt country in the world,” said Park So-keel of Liberty in North Korea, a nongovernmental organization that assists North Korea defectors.

Mr. Jang was also a key player in Pyongyang-Beijing relations. He visited China to examine its economic reforms, met with former President Hu Jintao and was the point man for several special economic zones that North Korea is establishing.

He also headed the Administration Agency under the Central Party Committee that oversaw a range of intelligence, national security, investigative and prosecutorial assets. This agency likely will be dismantled and its duties distributed to other organizations.

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