North Korea purge wipes out hopes of economic reform

The purge of North Korea’s second in command sent shock waves around the world. One writer looks at the impact on bilateral ties while the other details how the noose had tightened on Jang Song Thaek.

 
Iin a country where purges are as commonplace as polling in democratic countries, the summary execution of North Korea's No. 2 figure Jang Song Thaek (above), 67, was breathtaking in its brutality. Extensive tentacles of his power and influence, as well as his reported close relations with China, made this purge akin to a political earthquake with shockwaves likely to be felt inside and outside North Korea for months to come. -- FILE PHOTO: REUTERS

IN A country where purges are as commonplace as polling in democratic countries, the summary execution of North Korea's No. 2 figure Jang Song Thaek, 67, was breathtaking in its brutality. Extensive tentacles of his power and influence, as well as his reported close relations with China, made this purge akin to a political earthquake with shockwaves likely to be felt inside and outside North Korea for months to come.

Although the Moscow-educated Jang was said to have a fondness for drinking parties and pretty women, he rose rapidly on the wings of kinship with the Great Leader's family. But his penchant for collecting cronies bred suspicions of faction-forming and led to a two-year banishment from central Pyongyang in 2004. He bounced back to take charge of the Workers Party's Central Administrative Department, responsible for supervising the regime's legal and security branches.

Even as his marriage foundered on rumours of philandering, Jang was asked to take over the role of regent following the death of iron-handed Kim Jong Il in December 2011 and mentor the son Kim Jong Un. In a show of his closeness to the Kim family, Jang accompanied the Supreme Commander on more than a hundred inspection trips across the country last year. When the number of joint trips plunged by a half this year, the South Korean National Intelligence Service (NIS) began suspecting difficulties. The spy agency's suspicion thickened into alarm upon discovering that Jang's two closest deputies at the Administrative Department had been executed by firing squads. It also discovered that the North Korean ambassadors in Malaysia and Cuba, both close relatives of Jang, had been mysteriously recalled home. Then NIS broke the story of Jang's purge to the South Korean Parliament on Dec 3, almost a week ahead of confirmation by the North's Politburo.

NIS director Nam Jae Jun revealed that mysteriously missing from public view was another Jang protege, Pyongyang's former ambassador to Geneva, a financial expert whose main duty was looking after the Kim family's overseas bank accounts. He also reported to Parliament that the number of firing-squad executions has risen from 17 cases last year to 40 this year.

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