Reports of Jang Song-thaek, Kim Jong Un’s uncle, execution may signal unstable regime in North Korea

JangNewsPiece2 logo North Korean leader Kim Jong Un salutes to the members of the honour guards as he and his uncle, Jang Song Thaek (R), attend a commemoration event at the Cemetery of Fallen Fighters of the Korean People's Army in Pyongyang on July 25, 2013, as part of celebrations ahead of the 60th anniversary marking the end of the Korean War. Reuters

The extraordinary removal and subsequent execution of Jang Song-thaek, the uncle and assumed mentor of North Korean President Kim Jong Un, are developments that have surprised analysts worldwide. The unprecedented announcement of Jang’s execution was unusual news from a country that is normally shrouded in secrecy. For the first time in nearly decades, North Korean leadership has overtly admitted to an attempt to overthrow its leadership.

Broadcast on Dec. 12 via the state-run Korean Central News Agency, North Korean leadership denounced Jang as a “traitor” who sought to undermine the regime. Among the long list of alleged crimes, Jang was accused of engineering the disastrous 2009 attempt to overhaul the national currency system and of profiteering from his sponsorship of economic policies similar to China’s. Jang, 67 years of age, was convicted of treason in a special military court and executed on Thursday.

The complete details of Jang’s execution remain unknown, and the U.S. State Department has not been able to independently verify the news. However, the style and scope of the announcement itself suggest that the Kim regime is engaged in a widespread purge, attempting to consolidate the power of the young leader. Differing viewpoints exist as to what these recent events signal, whether it is a portent of increasing instability and tension in the region.  Specialists at the Walter H. Shorenstein Asia Pacific Research Center (Shorenstein APARC) have offered their analysis to a variety of media outlets.

Shorenstein APARC Director Gi-Wook Shin, Associate Director for Research Daniel C. Sneider, Korean Studies Program Associate Director David Straub, and 2013-14 Pantech Fellow in Korean Studies Sunny Seong-Hyon Lee, who have extensive experience with Korea and are often cited as commentators on regional political leadership, have been cited in national and international news reports.

Former Shorenstein APARC Korean Studies Fellow (2010-11) Sang-Hun Choe has written the lead story for the New York Times. Sneider was quoted in the newspaper report in USA Today World. Straub and Lee weigh in on the matter with two other experts in an article in NK News, a news agency at the forefront of North Korean news coverage. In a recent Financial Times Chinese edition, Lee examined why North Korea still looked "normal" after the death of Jang and analyed whether such a facade can be sustainable. On Dec. 12, Shin was interviewed in MK News on Jang’s removal from power, the article is available in Korean only.

Shorenstein APARC will continue to monitor the situation and will provide updated analysis as additional details unfold.