Published: December 13, 2013
SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — The execution of leader Kim Jong Un's uncle marks the unprecedented fall from grace of one of the most powerful figures in North Korea and the most serious political upheaval in the country in decades.
Jang Song Thaek rose from municipal bureaucrat to vice chairman of the National Defense Commission and member of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Workers' Party — posts that put him in second in power only to Kim.
A well-traveled operator with a network that spread to China, Jang was considered the chief architect of economic policy that focused on partnering with the neighbor and ally.
His ties to Kim were more than political: Jang was married to the leader's aunt, Kim Kyong Hui, and in late 2008, he was assumed to be serving in a regency role while the young heir was being groomed to succeed father Kim Jong Il. Jang often accompanied Kim Jong Un on guidance trips, and stood at his elbow at public events.
Rumors of Jang's dismissal began surfacing in Seoul earlier this month. On Sunday, he was fired from all posts at a special party meeting and dragged away by soldiers. Four days after his dramatic public arrest, Jang was tried for treason by a special military tribunal and executed Thursday, state media reported early Friday. He was 67.
The list of crimes against Jang was long, with plotting to overthrow the leadership the most serious of the allegations. Jang confessed, according to Pyongyang's official Korean Central News Agency.
For the outside world, KCNA's 2,700-word treatise ripping Jang's reputation to shreds provided an intriguing and revealing glimpse into the murky, feudalistic world of politics in the secretive country.
For North Koreans, the shocking public pillorying of a man seen as a father figure to Kim Jong Un was designed to send a clear message about the intolerance of opposition in a totalitarian state that demands absolute loyalty to the leader.
It was a humiliating end to a complicated career.
Jang, a native of the far northeastern border city of Chongjin, hailed from humble roots but was sharp enough to gain entry to prestigious Kim Il Sung University in Pyongyang. He started as instructor for the Pyongyang City Committee of the Workers' Party, and he rose post by post until reaching the top ranks.
He was purged and sent to a labor camp for two years in the mid-2000s, according to Kim Young-Soo, a North Korea expert at Sogang University in Seoul, South Korea. That purge was widely seen as a move to clip his wings.
It was after Kim Jong Il's stroke in 2008, as the regime began grooming Kim Jong Un to succeed him, that Jang began making a meteoric rise to the inner circle, an ascension that gained speed after Kim Jong Il's death from a heart attack in December 2011.
Jang was not a career military man but was made a four-star general, and often appeared at state events in a trim white general's uniform. He was appointed director of the Administration Department of the party's Central Committee, a position that gave him power over security agencies as well as the judiciary.
And as a core member of the Political Bureau, he helped engineer a campaign to bring the once-powerful military into the party's fold.
Jang played a key role in shaping economic policy in the impoverished country, particularly in expanding international joint ventures, particularly with China. Under Kim, the government has made improving the economy one of two main party objectives, along with building nuclear weapons.
Jang had recently added a new title: chairman of the State Physical Culture and Sports Guidance Commission, one of Kim Jong Un's pet projects. He last was seen publicly in early November meeting a sports delegation from Japan.
A shrewd-looking man who looked out on the world from tinted glasses, Jang had basked in his special status as the nation's No. 2 official. He displayed boldness at public events where the rest of the top officials sat at attention, clapping with the kind of ennui only displayed by one other man: Kim Jong Un.
In its sharply worded character assassination, KCNA castigated Jang for "unwillingly standing up from his seat and half-heartedly clapping" when Kim received an important title.
State media portrayed Jang as a power-hungry and ambitious challenger to the throne who resorted to nepotism and favoritism to build his "little kingdom" as he plotted a coup against his nephew.
In North Korea, opposition to the supreme leader is treated as a criminal, counterrevolutionary act.
State media accused Jang of destroying the economy for his personal benefit, blaming him for masterminding the 2009 currency revaluation that sparked rare protests in North Korea. He was held responsible for the shoddy quality of construction materials, charged with secretly trading in rare metals and was criticized for encouraging private enterprise.
He was described as a libertine and secret capitalist who distributed pornography and blew 4.6 million euros ($6.3 million) on gambling, according to state media.
Some of the accusations seem petty: reportedly rejecting factory workers' proposal to erect a mosaic of the two late leaders, putting a sculpture featuring Kim's signature in the shade, not in a central spot. No act of disloyalty small or large was overlooked.
Jang's conviction was preceded by the reported executions last month of his two closest confidants. KCNA confirmed one ally's purge Wednesday, calling Ri Ryong Ha a "flatterer" and stooge who with Jang was building an anti-Kim faction within the party.
The purge of Jang's accused comrades will continue, state media said.
What Jang's execution means for his wife was unclear. Kim Kyong Hui plays a key role in a leadership structure that stakes its claim to legitimacy on blood relations to her father, North Korea founder Kim Il Sung. Frail and said to be in bad health, Kim Kyong Hui has not been seen in footage and photos aired of this week's proceedings.
Jang and his wife, who met at university and married in 1972, have no surviving children, according to the South Korean government-run Information Center on North Korea. Their only child, a daughter, committed suicide in 2006 at age 29 while studying in Paris, according to South Korean media.
Jang's execution also calls the future of his relatives into question. A brother-in-law who is the ambassador to Cuba and his nephew, the ambassador to Malaysia, reportedly were recalled to Pyongyang, according to South Korean officials.
Another relative, the deputy tourism minister, canceled a trip to attend a tourism conference in Taiwan this week, Taiwanese officials told the island's state news agency, CNA.
Associated Press writer Eun-Young Jeong contributed to this report. Follow Jean Lee at www.twitter.com/newsjean and www.instagram.com/newsjean. [Copyright 2013 The Associated Press]