What The Execution Of Kim Jong Un's Uncle Means For N. Korea

The uncle of North Korean ruler Kim Jong Un was once among the most powerful men in the secretive country. Then, without warning, he was reportedly arrested and executed as a traitor.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm David Greene.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne. We're looking this morning at two stories of international intrigue. First, to North Korea. Until recently, the uncle of leader Kim Jong Un was the country's second-in-command. Earlier this week, though, he was detained on national television, hustled out of a meeting by guards.

North Korea's state media labeled him a corrupt, womanizing counter-revolutionary infected by capitalism. And then, the government announced today he was executed. To help explain this turn of events and what it may mean, we turn to NPR's Frank Langfitt in Shanghai. Good morning.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Well, tell us more about the man and also, what happened to him.

LANGFITT: Well, his name is Jang Song Taek, and he was married to Kim's aunt and heavily involved in economic policy. Officially, they charged him with corruption: gambling, drug use, things like that. But most analysts out here think this was really a power struggle. Kim Jong Un's father, the late leader Kim Jong Il, put Jang in place to help Kim grow into this job.

You remember a couple years ago, he took over running the country, only 28 years old. Now, Kim seems to be trying to consolidate his power, putting his own people in place. He's 30 years old now, and a lot analysts think that Kim thought now is the time to get rid of his uncle, who was 67 years old.

MONTAGNE: What did he do, exactly? Because as I understand it, he played a central role in getting Kim Jong Un into control of the country.

LANGFITT: Well, his real job was to guide him, more than anything else. People refer to him as kind of a regent in the old-fashioned sense. The real question, though, is why execute the guy? And this is what really shocked people today, when they heard it. And there seemed to be two reasons this could have happened.

One is, there seems to be a lot of genuine personal dislike that Kim Jong Un had for his uncle, and it's also a way of showing force. Kim seems to be angry that his uncle disrespected him. The Korean Central News Agency - it's a state-run news agency - said that when Kim was elected vice chairman of the Central Military Commission, his uncle only clapped, quote, "half-heartedly."

I mean, this was one of the sort of charges against him. The other thing is, Kim is still very young. He's untested. And killing the No. 2 leader sends a message throughout the whole government apparatus in North Korea. And what it's saying is - you know - no one is safe, and don't mess with me.

MONTAGNE: How common are bloody purges like this, in North Korea?

LANGFITT: They're not common, and that's why people are really paying attention in this part of the world today. People do get sacked all the time politically, and that's been going on quite a bit in this new regime; but this really stands out for a couple of reasons. One is the public humiliation you just mentioned. I mean, Jang is a family member. He was literally pulled out of a chair at this leadership meeting of the North Korea's Worker's Party. It was on television.

And then the execution of a senior leader - when I've been talking to analysts today, they say it's been decades since they've seen this. They can't remember this happening since maybe the '70s. These days - it's 20013; you know, even in a tough, totalitarian state it seems to be, you know, a pretty radical thing to do, especially somebody so high-ranking.

MONTAGNE: Does all of this have any bearing on North Korea's nuclear policy, or relations with South Korea and the U.S.?

LANGFITT: The analysts I talked to today don't think so. They see this very much as an internal political matter, and not directly related to domestic or external policy. That said, this is a 30-year-old leader who's only been in for a couple of years. He has nuclear weapons. China is watching it very closely; the United States and South Korea are watching it very closely - because they're concerned about the stability of this regime, and where it could all be heading. But the bigger impact, probably, in the short term will be on the North Korean government and officials there, in general. Some people are probably fairly scared today and looking over their shoulders.

MONTAGNE: Yes. Well, thank you very much, Frank.

LANGFITT: Happy to do it, Renee.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Frank Langfitt, speaking to us from Shanghai.

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