North Korea's Kim Jong-eun did the unthinkable: He publicly arrested his uncle, Jang Song-thaek, and then compounded the humiliation with a public announcement of his execution. Jang, the husband of Kim's aunt, Kim Kyong-hui, was a very senior official, some say the de facto No. 2 in the leadership. Jang was Kim's mentor and the regent who insured a smooth transition after the sudden death of Kim Jong-il in December 2011. And it was
Jang who traveled to China in August 2012 to meet with China's leadership to secure Beijing's economic and political support to a North Korea headed by Kim.
Is the public arrest and announced execution of Jang a rational act? Respect for family members and for elders is an admirable moral trait for a country like North Korea. Then why would Kim commit such a brutal act of violence against a member of his own family? Pyongyang accused Jang of every crime possible, to include womanizing and treason.
Rumors in circulation say Jang and his supporters controlled the clam, coal and crab industries and resisted Kim's order to relinquish control to the military. Other rumors had Kim in an intoxicated rage, ordering the execution of Jang and his deputies in the party. Some rumors accused Jang of various romantic relationships. A number of North Korea watchers stated that they weren't surprised with Jang's demise - they saw it coming.
The truth is no one really knows Kim and no one really thought Kim would execute his uncle. Kim has been at the helm for two years and he has not visited China, North Korea's neighbor and ally. Kim's interaction with counterparts and other seniors from other countries has literally been non-existent. How ironic and unfortunate, given the extreme escalation we have witnessed from North Korea since Kim replaced his father two years ago: two missile launches, one underground nuclear test, numerous threats to use nuclear weapons against South Korea and the US, the imprisonment of Kenneth Bae, and so forth.
The United Nations condemned these acts and imposed greater sanctions, which haven't deterred Pyongyang from developing a mobile ICBM capable of reaching the US, from working on the miniaturization of their nuclear weapons, from re-starting their plutonium reactor at Yongbyon and from continuing to enhance their uranium enrichment program for nuclear weapons, as they prepare for another nuclear test.
Domestically, Kim has succeeded in replacing the older generation of party and military leaders, who were supporters of his father, with a younger generation of loyalists. Kim's brutal execution of Jang was the last of this older generation of seniors to be removed. Indeed, over the past year it became apparent that Jang was losing his influence, with fewer joint appearances with Kim and with his apparent removal as the Director of the Party's Administrative Department.
It's fair to assume that during this period, Jang probably counseled Kim not to launch missiles in April and December 2012 and cautioned Kim that China would not be pleased with the February 2013 nuclear test. This sort of counsel from Jang probably angered some in the military who wanted Kim to enhance their nuclear and missile capabilities. And as the year progressed, Jang lost his influence with Kim, who was listening to the military hardliners. Eventually, Jang's influence with Kim deteriorated to the point of his execution.
Regardless of the official statements and the rumored reasons for Jang's execution, the fact is that Jang had more exposure to the outside world than any other senior in the leadership with access to and influence with Kim. Jang traveled to China numerous times and witnessed China's economic reforms. It was Jang who accompanied Kim's father, Kim Jong-il, to China to visit factories in Shanghai and Shenzhen. No doubt these visits had impact on Jang. Those who now surround and counsel Kim have not had this exposure. Indeed, Kim has not personally had this exposure.
The December 24 visit of Kim to the 526th Command and his admonition to the troops to "bolster their combat readiness - since war can break out without any prior notice" should not be dismissed as empty talk. Statements of this type and continued efforts to enhance its nuclear and missile capabilities are developments that should not be ignored.
With the execution of Jang, it would seem prudent for Beijing to intensify its dialogue with Pyongyang and invite Kim to visit Beijing soonest so as to engage in meaningful dialogue with the leadership in Beijing. China is the only country, especially at this time, that can get the leadership in Pyongyang to understand that further escalation is not in North Korea's interest.
Joseph R DeTrani was the Special Envoy for Six Party Talks with North Korea from 2003-2006 and the ODNI North Korea Mission Manager from 2006-2010. Until January 2012, he was the Director of the National Counterproliferation Center. He is now president of the Intelligence and National Security Alliance, a nonprofit. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and are not representative of any US Government department, agency or office.