Clock ticks for the KimsNorth Korea’s former No. 2 man, Jang Song-thaek, wouldn’t have been executed if he was tried in South Korea, my friend, a judge, said to me about the dramatic case that unfolded across the border. The once-powerful uncle and mentor to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un was purged and received a death sentence on multiple counts of corruption and treason. Reportedly, he was killed by machine guns.
First of all, my friend pointed out, the timing of his plotting of a coup was not specified in the sentence - the same grounds on which the lawyers of Lee Seok-ki, representative of the Unified Progressive Party, are defending him in his case on charges of conspiring to overthrow the South Korean government. Lee is pleading not guilty because the prosecution cannot prove the timing or means of his alleged insurrection scheme.
Jang was also accused of taking 4.6 million euros ($6.28 million) from a secret cache and gambling overseas. But what he spent was his own private fortune, and his profligacy in foreign casinos has not been backed by detailed evidence, according to my friend.
The 6,400-worded ruling against Jang is full of vehement and slanderous stigmatization of a man who was considered second in line only to the country’s ruler, and who married into the Kim clan. The judge friend of mine observed that the only charge that the North Korean military tribunal backed up with specific evidence was that the uncle by marriage clapped without passion at his young nephew in a meeting and positioned a statue featuring handwriting of Kim Jong-un in a shady place instead of in front of the military command headquarters where everyone could see it. For those transgressions, a senior government official here could face reprimand or possibly demotion for negligence of his public duty, but not prosecution. There is no legal logic in the indictment, my friend concluded.
There has been much talk about the stunning public nature of the purge and execution of a member of the ruling dynasty in North Korea. Some say that Jang was contacting Kim Jong-un’s older, exiled brother in an attempt to oust the youngest son of Kim Jong-il in his second year in power. Others claim, without much proof, that Jang had an affair with Kim’s young wife Ri Sol-ju.
The rumors are endless. But there is no sense in trying to decipher what prompted such an extreme action by Kim Jong-un against a veteran politician from the days of his father and grandfather. The clearest thing is that the young dictator simply doesn’t like sharing power with anyone else, and the fact that the person was the husband of his aunt didn’t matter.
There is a monologue in last year’s comedy film “Almost Che,” which is about a Chinese food deliveryman who pretends to be a political activist to impress a pretty university student he falls in love with. The character says that when everyone does what they want to do, it’s democracy and when one person does what he wants to do, it’s dictatorship.
But the kind of dictatorship we have seen in North Korea over the past weeks is utterly horrifying. The normally opaque regime publicly released scenes of the dramatic fall from grace of the once-powerful Jang. The haggard and bruised eminence grise was arrested, declared guilty by a tribunal and immediately put to death - allegedly by machine-gun fire.
It was a typically tyrannical exhibition to generate absolute loyalty and submission by evoking fear through the public elimination of opponents. The U.S. State Department observed that the execution underscored the extreme brutality of the nation’s ruler and its dire human rights record. Even the liberal Hankyoreh newspaper said in an editorial that the North Korean ruling power showed its cruelty and brutality.
The shock had the immediate effect that was intended and could be predicted. The elite rushed to pledge their allegiance to their bloody, boyish leader. That was a knee-jerk response you can expect in a life-and-death situation. The wooly rhetoric like “dictatorship of the proletariat” and “military-first” politics disappeared and was replaced with blunt praise of the “Baedu bloodline,” referring to the national founder Kim Il Sung and his heirs.
The country is further regressing to the feudal - and tribal - ages. The official newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, cheered: “Only our Dear Leader knows what to do,” sending the chilling message to the people that they dare not think otherwise if they want to stay alive. The tyranny of dictatorships usually turn more cruel toward their ends. But the politics of terror is a double-edged sword. The elite and public may fear for their lives after witnessing that their ruler’s cruelty has no limits. That may scare them into rebellion.
What could be interesting here is China’s move. On the surface, Beijing declines to comment on “internal affairs” of Pyongyang. But the Communist Party’s highest ranks are said to be enraged by the removal of Jang, who was China’s closest connection in Pyongyang. State-run media pointed out that most Chinese are appalled by the backwardness of North Korea, and that negative sentiment could work unfavorably on Beijing’s policy toward the country. Washington drummed up criticism of Pyongyang on signs of discomfort in Beijing.
It remains to be seen where North Korea is headed. The regime could last or break down all of a sudden just like East Germany did. China could one day decide to turn off the fuel supply to North Korea, and that would be the end. It looks like the clock is ticking for the Kim dynasty. What is certain is that life in North Korea just got worse. Even the second-most powerful man can be killed because he didn’t applaud enthusiastically enough. My prayers are with North Koreans.
*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Lee Chul-ho