An uncle’s ambition cut short in North Korea

Story highlights

Jang Song Taek was considered North Korea's Number 2

He was executed, North Korea said

Experts say Jang was an ambitious man whose wings had been clipped before

His influence came from his marriage into the ruling family

CNN  — 

Jang Song Taek, who held numerous posts in the North Korean regime since the 1970s, was considered the country’s second-most powerful man.

Then, the most powerful man, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, had him executed.

Jang’s death sent ripples through the isolated nation not just because of his influential position, but because he was the uncle of Kim Jong Un.

In the two years preceding his death, Jang held one of the most powerful posts – regent to the young North Korean leader. He was instrumental in the nation’s transition from former leader Kim Jong Il to his son and heir, Kim Jong Un.

The secretive nature of the North Korean regime makes it a challenge to deduce why Jang fell out of favor, though one expert sums it up this way: Kim Jong Un outgrew his guardian and took him out.

Those who agree with this hypothesis look at Jang’s trajectory throughout his decades in the regime. At least twice before, Jang was purged from the leadership presumably for his too-big ambitions.

Kim Jong Il purged Jang in 2004 and he was virtually unseen for two years before making a comeback. If his ambitions got the best of him again (the North Koreans say he was guilty of treason), this time, there will be no comeback.

Jang, who was married to Kim Jong Un’s aunt, was vice chairman of North Korea’s top military body and had often been pictured beside the young leader, who is believed to be around 30.

But in a lengthy article foaming with outraged rhetoric, North Korea’s official news agency on Friday accused Jang of trying to overthrow the state, describing him as “despicable human scum.”

Analysis: North Korean execution raises more question than answers

Jang’s ascent

Jang, 67, was born in northeastern North Korea and was the youngest of five children, according to the respected North Korea Leadership Watch blog. He studied economics, and it was during university that he met Kim Kyong Hui, the daughter of North Korean leader Kim Il-Sung, and sister of Kim Jung Il, who would succeed his father.

The couple got married, giving Jang an inside track to some of the country’s most powerful posts.

Among his many positions, Jang was the director of the administrative department of the ruling Worker’s Party of Korea, chairman of the country’s commission for sports, and vice chairman of the National Defense Commission.

“Over time he accumulated a lot of influence within the party central committee,” said Alexandre Mansourov, a North Korea expert at Johns Hopkins University.

Although not related by blood to the ruling family, his influence came from his reliance on his wife, Mansourov said.

But analysts say Jang had a big ego and was arrogant, leading to his being removed from his positions at least twice.

According to Mansourov, in the late 1970s, Jang was stripped of his post and sent to work at a steel mill, but succeeded in returning to the party ranks. Jang reportedly fell out of favor a second time in 2004, when he left the leadership ranks and disappeared from public view for about two years.

In the last two years, Jang extended his influence from the administrative centers of North Korea to the economic side, Mansourov said. He began accumulating authority over the economy, social life, foreign investment and foreign trade.

Opinion: How Kim Jong Un got rid of his uncle

North Korean transparency?

One of the more surprising developments following the execution of Jang was the lengthy indictment of his alleged crimes and his character that was published by the state media.

For the regime to so openly explain why it executed him, it could hint at Jang truly having overstepped his bounds.

“This man has always been a little more individualistic and embracing capitalism and lifestyle that is not acceptable to North Korea,” said Han Park, a professor of international affairs at the University of Georgia.

Whatever Jang did to betray North Korea, it was so severe that his wife could not, or would not, help spare him.

“I think she is more loyal to the party than Jang is,” Park said.

She may have even consented or participated in prosecuting her husband, he said.

To the outside world, the transition of power from Kim Jong Il to Kim Jong Un appeared smooth, but the revelations made in the indictment cast a different light on the change in power.

The fall of Jang is evidence that there was resistance and tension behind the scenes during these past years, Mansourov said.

It may turn out that Jang was building his own power base, growing his own cult of personality, he said.

In the end, Jang may have underestimated the younger Kim, thinking he was a kid who could be manipulated, Mansourov said.

In the end, Kim outgrew his regent and took him out, he said.