North Korea’s Kim Jong-un Has Uncle Executed for Treason

State media accuse Jang Sung-taek, the regime’s former number two, of plotting a coup d’état.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un watches a military parade in Pyongyang, April 14, 2012
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un watches a military parade in Pyongyang, April 14, 2012 (AP/Han Guan)

North Korea’s state media reported on Friday that Jang Sung-taek, its leader’s Kim Jong-un’s uncle, had been executed for treason. If true, it caps the spectacular downfall of a man who had long been considered a power behind the throne of the secretive communist regime.

Describing Jang as a “traitor to the nation for all ages,” KCNA, the primary source of information on the impoverished Asian country for outsiders, quoted him as confessing to plotting a coup d’état. “I thought the army might join in the coup if the living conditions of the people and services personnel further deteriorated in the future,” he allegedly said.

KCNA also said Jang had stolen €4.6 million and spent much of it in foreign casinos. “He led a dissolute, depraved life, squandering money wherever he went,” according to the news agency which is seen as a mouthpiece for the regime.

It is believed Jang previously fell out of favor with the ruling family in 2004 when he disappeared from public life. He reappeared at Kim Jong-il’s side two years later and was named vice chairman of the National Defense Commission, the North’s highest military body, a year before the former leader’s death in 2011. Jang was married to Kim Jong-il’s sister, Kyong-hui, who is herself a high party official.

News of his execution followed a swirl of media reports that one or more of Jang’s aides had defected to South Korea. The South’s spy agency said it had no knowledge of any defections, however. Two members of the country’s parliamentary intelligence committee earlier claimed that two of Jang’s allies had been executed for corruption.

While admitting that it is impossible to say with certainty what the implications of Jang’s alleged death will be, Foreign Policy magazine speculates that it might hurt ties the North’s with China, its only benefactor. “Jang was seen as the point man for bilateral ties,” it points out. As recently as August of last year, he visited the country and met with China’s president and premier — in contrast with Kim who has never met a foreign leader.

China has seemed increasingly exasperated with its neighbor’s erratic behavior in recent years but props up the North Korean regime because it provides a buffer between it and South Korea where nearly 30,000 American troops are stationed.