We don’t pretend to know what’s going on in North Korea, but we’ll bet a lot of folks in the ruling family are looking over their shoulders. Their anxiety is understandable if, as is being reported, Kim Jong Un has had his uncle, Jang Song Thaek, executed.
The news conjures up images of “Game of Thrones,” in which young, cruel and insecure King Joffrey Baratheon has Eddard Stark beheaded for challenging Joffrey’s right to sit on the Iron Throne.
Unlike Jang, however, Stark wasn’t the ruler’s uncle. Rather, Stark was the previous ruler’s closest friend and adviser and could have been king had he wanted it. He deserved a better fate.
We can’t say whether Jang, who was described as “the face of economic reform,” deserved a better fate, though North Korea’s economy could use some reforming. Alexandre Monsourav, a North Korea specialist at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, acknowledged that the uncle, whose wife, Kim Kyong Hui, is the daughter of Kim Il Sung, North Korea’s “eternal President,” had wanted to overthrow young Kim and establish his own dynasty. Such ambitions have proven fatal across the centuries in countless regimes the world over. Jang, who was said to be the second most powerful person in the country, wasn’t just condemned as a traitor; his alleged offenses included corruption, womanizing and drug use..
Young Kim has clearly prevailed for now in this vicious game for the throne of the Hermit Kingdom. In the sort of trial that North Korea and a select few other countries specialize in, Jang was found guilty of “attempting 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.” For good measure, he was described as “despicable human scum.” You can’t have someone like that at the ruler’s side.
It wasn’t always thus. Jang, 67, was a central figure in ensuring that Kim took over after his father, Kim Jong Il, died two years ago.
As in the “Game of Thrones,” what happens next is unclear, though it’s almost certain to be ruthless. “Kim Jong Un is willing to kill his own blood. He’s showing that really he has no mercy or pity,” Dr. Monsourav said, adding that anyone in Jang’s circle can expect to be “rounded up and summarily executed or thrown into gulags.”
World leaders, mystified and wary, are paying close attention to the signs from Pyongyang. The developments might even have Dennis Rodman scratching his head.