The Blog

An Execution In Pyongyang

Some analysts suggest that Jang Song-thaek might have become too vocal an advocate of China-style economic reforms. Perhaps Kim simply needed to show, in the most brutal way imaginable, who was boss.

Perhaps Shakespeare isn't the most obvious place to look when trying to make sense of the latest dramatic events in North Korea, but when I heard last night of the execution of Jang Song-thaek, the powerful uncle of the country's leader, Kim Jong-un, my thoughts immediately turned to Hamlet.

Shakespeare's play ends with Hamlet murdering his uncle the king, a man he calls "incestuous, murderous, and damned." Last night, the North Korean news agency called Jang Song-thaek "despicable human scum... worse than a dog, [who] perpetrated thrice-cursed acts of treachery." In its way, it was almost Shakespearean in its fury.

Jang was considered the power behind the throne in Pyongyang (he was married to the sister of Kim's father), and his power stretched back to long before the young and untested Kim Jong-un came to power two years ago. He was regarded as one of the most powerful men in the country since the time of Kim's grandfather Kim Il-sung -- and when the grandson inherited the crown from his father, it was thought that Jang would probably be the man really in charge.

Now, he's dead, for reasons that we can only guess at. North Korea remains the most secretive place on the planet, and even in countries like South Korea and Japan, which have good reason to want to know exactly what's going on in Pyongyang, analysts usually have very little hard information on which to base their assessments.

So for now, we have just the overblown reporting of the State news agency to go on: "The accused Jang brought together undesirable forces and formed a faction as the boss of a modern day factional group for a long time and thus committed such hideous crime as 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.

"The accused is a traitor to the nation for all ages who perpetrated anti-party, counter-revolutionary factional acts in a bid to overthrow the leadership of our party and state and the socialist system ... Jang committed such an unpardonable thrice-cursed treason as overtly and covertly standing in the way of settling the issue of succession to the leadership ...

"In a bid to rally a group of reactionaries to be used by him for toppling the leadership of the party and state, he let the undesirable and alien elements including those who had been dismissed and relieved of their posts after being severely punished for disobeying the instructions of Kim Jong-il."

Which I take to mean that he and the younger Kim fell out. The question is: over what? Most likely, according to the first analysts' assessments, is that the issue that led to Jang's death was relations with China. And that is sending the alarm bells ringing across the region.

North Korea needs China in order to survive. It needs China for fuel, for food, and for military and diplomatic cover. But over the last few years, there have been growing signs of impatience in Beijing with the often wayward behaviour of its desperately impoverished and unpredictable neighbour.

Earlier this year, the North Koreans ratcheted up tensions in the region with first an underground nuclear test and then a series of blood-curdling threats to unleash nuclear weapons against the United States. At the time, the threats were seen as a way for Kim Jong-un to bolster his position with the country's military leaders, to reassure them that he was made of the same stern stuff as his father and grandfather. China did not approve.

So was the execution of his uncle a similar attempt to burnish his "I'm-as-tough-as-they-were" credentials? Some analysts suggest that Jang might have become too vocal an advocate of China-style economic reforms. Perhaps Kim simply needed to show, in the most brutal way imaginable, who was boss.

So North Korea now enters a new, dangerous phase of its history. Will the anti-Jang purge stop with him, or will there be more casualties as Kim moves against others thought to have been close to him? How much support is there for Jang among the senior leadership? How secure is Kim's own position?

One way for him to show that he is firmly in charge is to engineer another regional crisis. Three and a half years ago, a South Korean warship sank with the loss of 46 lives -- the North Koreans were accused of firing a torpedo against it, a charge it has always denied. Eight months later, it launched an artillery attack on a South Korean military base, killing two civilians and two marines.

And just 10 days ago, before the arrest and execution of Jang Song-thaek, a report from Seoul suggested "It may only be a matter of time before North Korea launches a sudden, deadly attack on the South."

In Tokyo, Seoul and Beijing, governments will be watching carefully for the latest move from Pyongyang. Further afield, in Washington and other NATO capitals, policy-makers will also be waiting nervously to see what happens next. The US has a major strategic interest in the region, to say nothing of its defence agreements with some of the countries now feeling most threatened.

It may all sound like a quarrel in a far away country between people of whom we know nothing -- but as Neville Chamberlain found out to his cost, after broadcasting those words in 1938, such quarrels can sometimes explode into global cataclysms. Let's hope history isn't about to repeat itself.