Wong Maye-E, Associated Press
PYONGYANG, North Korea — The execution of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's uncle brought a swift and violent end to a man long considered the country's second most powerful. But while Jang Song Thaek is now gone, the fallout from his purge is not over.
In a stunning reversal of the popular image of Jang as a mentor and father figure guiding young Kim Jong Un as he consolidated power, North Korea's state-run media on Friday announced he had been executed and portrayed him as a morally corrupt traitor who saw the death of Kim's father, Kim Jong Il, in December 2011 as an opportunity to make his own power play.
Experts who study the authoritarian country, which closely guards its internal workings from both outsiders and citizens, were divided on whether the sudden turn of events reflected turmoil within the highest levels of power or signaled that Kim Jong Un was consolidating his power in a decisive show of strength. Either way, the purge is an unsettling development for a world that is already wary of Kim's unpredictability amid North Korea's attempts to develop nuclear weapons.
"If he has to go as high as purging and then executing Jang, it tells you that everything's not normal," said Victor Cha, a former senior White House adviser on Asia.
The first appearance of the new narrative came out just days ago, when North Korea accused Jang, 67, of corruption, womanizing, gambling and taking drugs. It said he'd been eliminated from all his posts. Friday's allegations heaped on claims that he tried "to overthrow the state by all sorts of intrigues and despicable methods with a wild ambition to grab the supreme power of our party and state."
"He dared not raise his head when Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il were alive," it said, referring to the country's first leader and his son. But after Kim Jong Il's death, it claimed, Jang saw his chance to challenge Kim Jong Un and realize his "long-cherished goal, greed for power."
The purge also could spread and bring down more people, Cha said. "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. It's got to have some ripple effect."
South Korean intelligence officials say two of Jang's closest aides have already been executed last month.
Narushige Michishita, a security expert at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo, suggested that Jang's removal shows "that Kim Jong Un has the guts to hold onto power, and this might have shown his will to power, his willingness to get rid of anything that stands in his way."
One of the biggest opportunities for the world to see what may happen next will come on Dec. 17, which is the second anniversary of Kim Jong Il's death. North Korea watchers will be closely following whether Jang's wife, Kim Kyong Hui, the younger sister of Kim Jong Il, and other figures are present in the official ceremonies marking the day.
Jang's removal leaves no clear No. 2 under Kim, whose inner circle now includes Vice Marshal Choe Ryong Hae, Premier Pak Pong Ju, and Kim Yong Nam, the ceremonial head of state.
News of Jang's execution was trumpeted across the nation by North Korea's state media — with unusually vitriolic outbursts on TV, radio and in the main newspaper — as a triumph of Kim Jong Un and the ruling party over a traitor "worse than a dog" who was bent on overthrowing the government.
Pyongyang residents crowded around newspapers posted at the capital's main subway station to read the story. State media said Jang was tried for treason by a special military tribunal and executed Thursday.
"He's like an enemy who dares to be crazy enough to take over power from our party and our leader," said Pak Chang Gil, echoing the media's official line. "He got what he deserved."
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