A man watches a live TV news program at the Seoul Railway Station in South Korea showing North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's uncle Jang Song Thaek, second from right, as he is escorted by military officers Dec. 12 during a trial in Pyongyang, North Korea. (Lee Jin-man / AP)
PYONGYANG, NORTH KOREA — North Korea said Friday that it had executed Kim Jong Un’s uncle as a traitor for trying to seize supreme power, a stunning end for the leader’s former mentor, long considered the country’s No. 2 official.
In a sharp reversal of the long-held popular image of Jang Song Thaek as a kindly uncle guiding Kim Jong Un as he consolidated power, the North’s official Korean Central News Agency indicated that Jang instead saw the death of Kim Jong Il in December 2011 as an opportunity to challenge his nephew and win power.
Jang had been tried and executed, North Korea said, for “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.” It called him a “traitor to the nation for all ages” and “worse than a dog.”
The unusually detailed announcement came only days after North Korea said it had “eliminated” Jang from all his posts. Despite the strong language and allegations in the announcement Monday of Jang’s fall, there had been no sign in North Korean media of an imminent execution.
Kim Jong Un has overseen other high-profile purges since taking over after the death of his father, Kim Jong Il, two years ago. But none of the purges have been as public — or as close to home — as the downfall of Jang.
Analysts say Kim Jong Un has acted swiftly and ruthlessly to bolster his own power and show strength, but there are fears in Seoul that the removal of Jang and his followers could lead to instability, a miscalculation or even attack on the South. Jang had been seen by outsiders as the leading supporter of Chinese-style economic reforms and an important link between Pyongyang and Beijing.
In Seoul, top presidential security and government ministers began an unscheduled meeting Friday to discuss Jang’s execution and its aftermath, according to the presidential Blue House.
During his two years in power Kim Jong Un has overseen nuclear and missile tests, other high-profile purges and a barrage of threats this spring, including vows of nuclear strikes against Washington and Seoul. His father, Kim Jong Il, took a much lower public profile when he rose to power after the death of his father, Kim Il Sung, in 1994.
Although the high-level purges could indicate confidence, Victor Cha, a former senior White House adviser on Asia, said he sees signs of “a lot of churn in the system.”
“If he has to go as high as purging and then executing Jang, it tells you that everything’s not normal in the system,” said Cha, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank in Washington. “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.”
North Korea has recently turned to attempts at diplomacy with South Korea and the United States. But tensions have remained high since Pyongyang’s threats in March and April. Those included warnings that it would restart nuclear bomb fuel production.
There was no immediate word about the fate of Jang’s wife, Kim Kyong Hui, the younger sister of Kim Jong Il. She was also seen as an important mentor to Kim Jong Un after her brother’s 2011 death.
The White House said it could not independently confirm reports of Jang’s execution, but has “no reason to doubt” the report from KCNA.
Patrick Ventrell, a National Security Council spokesman, said, “if confirmed, this is another example of the extreme brutality of the North Korean regime.”
The KCNA report called Jang a “despicable political careerist and trickster” and “despicable human scum.”
But it was also unusually specific. For instance, it criticized Jang for not rising and applauding his nephew’s previous appointment to a senior position because Jang “thought that if Kim Jong Un’s base and system for leading the army were consolidated, this would lay a stumbling block in the way of grabbing the power.”
Jang was described earlier this week by state media as “abusing his power,” being “engrossed in irregularities and corruption,” and taking drugs and squandering money at casinos while undergoing medical treatment in a foreign country.
Klug reported from Seoul, South Korea.