The World

Did Kim Jong-un Execute His Uncle to Send a Message to China?

Out of the picture.

Photo by JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images

In its characteristically unhinged style, North Korea’s Central News Agency reports that Kim Jong-un’s uncle and mentor Jang Song-thaek, or “despicable human scum Jang,” as they describe him, has been executed.

Jang, accused of disloyalty as well as crimes including gambling, drug use, and womanizing, was removed from his senior leadership position in the Korean Workers’ Party and the National Defense Commission, in an unusually public purge a few days ago and has been conspicuously edited out of official images.

Many had speculated that Jang was something of a power behind the throne, so his ouster will probably be read as North Korea’s new leader consolidating his power.

It’s also likely to be viewed with some alarm in Beijing, the North Korean regime’s major patron. Jang had made several official trips to China and reportedly had a good relationship with Chinese leaders. Jang had overseen the development of several special economic zones co-adminstered with China and may have been a supporter of Chinese-style market reforms.

The New YorkTimes notes that “among the crimes that Mr. Jang was said to have committed was selling resources cheaply, an accusation that appears to have been aimed directly at China, the biggest buyer of North Korea’s iron ore and minerals.” 

The nationalist Chinese Global Times newspaper speculates that Jang’s downfall probably won’t have a major impact on ties between the two countries but does mean there’s a “decrease of China hands among North Korea’s leaders, and the younger generation in the regime lack experience in dealing with China.”  

The paper also notes speculation that Kim may move up a planned trip to China next year. With some signs that the Chinese government is growing increasingly impatient with the hermit state to the south, that should be an interesting trip to watch.