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Jang Song Thaek's Execution Is Even Weirder Than You Think

To understand what makes the fanfare surrounding the purge of Jang Song Thaek -- Kim Jong Un's uncle and regent -- so different, it helps to look back a few years to the recent purge and supposed execution of another high-profile North Korean official: Pak Nam Gi.

When the time came for Pak -- a high-ranking party official who was held responsible for a botched 2009 currency devaluation that left an already fragile economy reeling -- there were no state-owned news reports translated into multiple languages, laced with attention-grabbing language like "thrice-cursed treason." There were no photographs made public of him being dragged out by the arms in front of his comrades and no execution announcement.

There were only North Korea watchers doing their best to peer into the black box: reports citing unnamed sources, experts noting how long it had been since Pak had last appeared in public. Most reports said he'd been executed. Others would later claim he'd resurfaced.

Not so with Jang. This time, in an unprecedented move, the North Korean government sought to lay all doubts to rest about Jang's fate in a bizarre, nearly three thousand word statement that took the state-owned new agency's tendency toward purple prose to new heights to accuse Jang of everything from seeking to stage a coup to gambling away foreign currency at casinos.

The statement announcing his execution is a blistering document and a marvel of communist rhetoric, as astounding in its news value as in its language. If North Korea weren't a deeply atheistic nation it might be easily described as Biblical: "The era and history will eternally record and never forget the shuddering crimes committed by Jang Song Thaek, the enemy of the party, revolution and people and heinous traitor to the nation."

But Christianity, of course, is nowhere to be found in today's North Korea; rather, that language serves another purpose entirely. "The rhetoric of eternity ... opens onto not only the myth of a perpetual, self-reliant state, but also the way in which North Korea's cult of leadership calls for hereditary succession to uphold a so-called people's republic," Eric Song, an assistant professor of literature at Swarthmore College, wrote in in an email to FP. "These two notions -- hereditary rule and a people's republic -- are contradictory, and the KCNA release manifests this contradiction by casting Jang Song Thaek's crimes against the state as a betrayal of ‘paternal love.'"

The regime last saw public purges of this nature under Kim's grandfather, Kim Il Sung, during the foundational years of the democratic people's republic, when he was still seeking to consolidate his power. Under Kim Jong Il, analysts believe the regime continued to use purges and even executions as a political tool. But they were quiet, low-profile affairs, that took care not to disturb the image of unity the dynasty sought to preserve.

"They always kind of tried to hide ... what didn't fit their narrative," said John Delury, a senior fellow at the Center on U.S.-China Relations and an assistant professor of international studies at Yonsei University in Seoul.

By contrast, this time around, the propaganda machine has presented the world with a story of factions and treachery. "I attempted to trigger off discontent among service personnel and people that the present regime does not take any measure despite the fact that the economy of the country and people's living are driven into catastrophe," KCNA quotes Jang as telling his interrogators. "Comrade supreme leader is the target of the coup."

The stern, infallible father at the top of the Korean political pyramid -- Kim Jong Un -- was thus betrayed by his allegedly recalcitrant son. But that mythology of Korean politics also creates a problem for carrying out purges. If the leader is infallible, why would functionaries rebel in the first place?

As a result, the elimination of rivals -- perceived or real -- have typically been carried out with an eye toward keeping them low-profile. Those trying to understand events in the closed-off country are forced to resort to guessing at the meaning of the subtlest of signals.

"You literally watch for someone not reappearing," Delury said. "In some cases, that's all -- nothing's ever said."

Whether Jang in fact planned to execute a coup or whether he was eliminated in an effort by Kim Jong Un to consolidate power -- or some other scenario - remains unknown, but in the words of the KCNA, he is now a traitor for all eternity. 

David Guttenfelder, the AP's chief Asia photographer, happened to be in Pyongyang for the announcement of Jang's execution. He captured this scene in a subway station in the capital city as residents took in the news of Jang's purge. 

That man's bewildered look is as insightful an analysis as any.

WOOHAE CHO/AFP/Getty Images

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And Then There Were Two ... Kim Jong Il's Dwindling Inner Circle

At Kim Jong Il's funeral in December 2011, the dear leader's casket was flanked by eight people -- his son and successor, Kim Jong Un, and the "gang of seven," a collection of the late Kim's closest advisors. These officials were hand-selected "regents" meant to guide the young dictator as he grew into his new role. Now, nearly two years later, only two of the seven remain in office after the apparent execution and very public shaming of Jang Song Taek, thought to be the second-most powerful man in North Korea.

On Dec. 28, 2011, these were the eight men standing alongside Kim Jong Il's hearse (clockwise, starting from front left of the vehicle; two are hidden behind the hearse in the image above):

Kim Jong Un: Dear Leader, still very much in office
Jang Song Taek: Director, Worker's Party Administration Department, Executed
Kim Ki Nam: Chief Propagandist, Worker's Party
Choe Thae Bok: Chairman, Supreme People's Assembly
U Tong Chuk (not visible): Head of State Security, Disappeared
Kim Jong Gak (not visible): Minister of the People's Armed Forces, Fired
Kim Yong Chun: Vice Marshal, Korean army, Demoted
Ri Yong Ho: Chief of the General Staff, Korean army, Disappeared

With Jang's sudden execution this week, all of the military personnel in the gang of seven have been, at least, forced from office. The North Korean government has been unusually public about Jang's fall from grace, releasing pictures of him facing a military tribunal and putting out a forceful, florid statement on his alleged crimes. That's a marked departure from some of the other members of Kim Jong Il's inner circle, who have simply disappeared and their positions quietly filled.

"People survive, especially at the highest ranks, by proving themselves useful, completely nonthreatening," Abraham Denmark, vice president for political and security affairs at the National Bureau of Asian Research, told Foreign Policy. He noted that it also "helps to have connections to Kim Il Sung," which the remaining advisors do.

Denmark says there are many theories for Jang's sudden removal, ranging from the regime's stated charge that he was plotting a coup to theories that he was actually killed by his wife, who is also Kim Jong Un's aunt. "My guess is it had something to do with his handling of the Kim family's money," Denmark said, though he stressed that, as with most matters concerning the hermit kingdom, all the theories are extremely speculativek, and in this case "we know even less than usual."

Military officers have borne the brunt of the young Kim's leadership purge. U and Ri have both disappeared from state media and had their prominent offices filled by others. Kim Yong Chun, one of the army's highest ranking officers, took a sudden demotion to head up the military's reserve training office. Kim Jong Gak was briefly promoted to the highest military office in the country after Kim Jong Il's death, was fired from every military position he held and is now only occasionally seen among the civilian leadership.

Kim Jong Un has begun building his own inner circle and dismantling the old, says Denmark. As he does, he appears to be drawing more from the country's civilian leadership that have risen through the Worker's Party -- a marked shift from the previous government.

But that probably won't help Kim Ki Nam and Choe Thae Bok, the last remaining members of Kim Jong Il's gang of seven sleep any better.

EPA/KCNA Modified by FP